Before the Berlin Wall came down, members of the resistance in East Germany kept a wary eye on every street corner, where almost always one could make out the figures of two men slouched down in the front seat of a little red car. These were the local Stasi agents, sent to spy on the populace.
We don’t have them here yet. Congress directly rebuffed Attorney General John Ashcroft’s attempt to set up a neighborhood snitch program in the existing Patriot Act. But that didn’t stop police departments in the East and Midwest from launching their own private “civil defense” programs, a polite description of a snitch network, and tying them together into a communal database. It’s called Cat Eyes, short for the Community Anti-Terrorism Training Initiative, created by former U.S. military officers along with U.S. cops, and has been supported by the Justice Department and the Arab American Institute. The fledgling project supposedly tries to avoid racial profiling. Its motto: “Watching America with pride, not prejudice.”
Cat Eyes calls for block captains and block watchers who report to neighborhood coordinators, who in turn get chummy with local police or sheriffs, as well as provide training sessions for neighborhood recruits. The block captain, according to the program’s literature, “personally visits each home/apartment/business in his/her block, announcing the meeting and encouraging neighbors to participate.” The block watcher “acts as eyes and ears for law enforcement and reports any suspicious activity.”
“Citizens shouldn’t worry about someone thinking, ‘They’re going to think I’m crazy.’ Don’t worry about that, report it,” Bedford County sheriff Mike Brown told the Lynchburg, Virginia, News and Advance. “They may be the little pieces of the puzzle that we need to put the big pieces together. You never know where a lead is going to come from.”
Police departments in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Ohio are doing Cat Eyes, as are various cities and towns in Florida, Nevada, and California. Park police in Washington, D.C., and university police at MIT are using the training materials.
Sergeant Frank Hamilton of Perry Township, Ohio, told the Voice that he had been trained as a Cat Eyes instructor. “A lot of agencies don’t push it,” he said, “but we intend to push it and get it out to as many people as possible.” Township police are organizing through schools and businesses, and classes are free in the community. “This will be an enhancement to our neighborhood block watch program,” Hamilton added.
In Teaneck, New Jersey, specially trained police officers are fanning out into neighborhoods, training people to be more “diligent” and telling them what to look for. A police spokesman called the response from the public “very, very positive.” “There’s been so many groups,” the spokesman added. “Many, many civic groups, religious organizations, councilmembers, politicians.” As a result, he said, even ordinary residents “look at the world a little bit different.”
That’s just what Mike Licata, a high school teacher and retired air force officer who dreamed up and copyrighted the program, hopes for. Licata told The Boston Globe, “If I felt that my neighbor of 10 years was doing fundraising for a group, I’d turn ’em in.” He adds that the FBI will “just investigate them—and if you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And if you’re right, that’s a big thing!”
Additional reporting: Phoebe St John and Joanna Khenkine