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Suspicious package reports swamp major cities

/ Source: The Associated Press

Sirens wailing, bomb technician Paul Friedlander weaves his sport utility vehicle through congested streets to a market, where his target sits on a sidewalk surrounded by police tape.

It is a nondescript green suitcase.

Sliding on gloves, Friedlander slices into the bag with a knife and flings the “threats” into the air: towels, sheets and clothes. It’s another false alarm, one of thousands of suspicious item reports that have deluged police since Sept. 11, 2001.

“Life is not the same for us,” said Friedlander, who said calls about suspicious packages to District of Columbia police each year have at least doubled since the terrorist attacks.

And they aren’t going away anytime soon. Building evacuations, street closings and bomb-squad appearances are almost routine in big cities like Washington and New York, where police departments are stretching their resources to deal with suspicious item reports. But at times, authorities acknowledge, those vigilant reactions can seem silly in hindsight.

A post office next to the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum was evacuated in June because of a foul-smelling package. The box contained a dirty diaper.

In May, more than 300 state workers in Tumwater, Wash., were evacuated from the state’s Department of Corrections headquarters after a package arrived without a return address. Inside was a bobblehead doll.

And in January, authorities closed highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River in Boston after discovering blinking electronic devices on bridges and other spots. They turned out to be part of a publicity stunt for the Cartoon Network show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”

Measuring the cost of false alarms is difficult, authorities said. After the massive police response in Boston, for instance, Turner Broadcasting and the advertising agency that carried out the campaign agreed to pay $2 million to cover the city’s costs and for restitution. But intangibles, such as frustration and lost productivity for thousands of people trapped in the resulting gridlock, are impossible to calculate.

'You get jaded'
Cyndi Davis-Dow, who walks 1½ miles to her job on Capitol Hill in Washington, said she spots street closures a couple of times a month because of suspicious packages and other items.

She recently noticed what appeared to be a child’s abandoned backpack in a park and shrugged it off, believing that reporting it would have shut down the area. “You get jaded because it’s never anything,” Davis-Dow said.

Others say the inconveniences are necessary.

“After what we’ve been through, it’s better to be safe than stupid,” said Larry Bravman, who works in a restaurant in the district. “It’s when they stop checking these things out that something’s going to happen.”

Police say they are careful not to discourage the public from reporting suspicious packages. Various initiatives such as the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign urge people to be on alert.

Such messages may be working.

In New York, records indicate there has been a sharp jump in the number of suspicious package reports, with 814 in 2002 — the first year statistics are available — to 37,614 last year, police said.

More calls in aftermath of terror attacks
Authorities in Boston don’t keep track of how many suspicious package calls they receive from year to year, though police say the number has tripled since Sept. 11.

Several police officials said reports usually increase in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, such as the 2004 train bombings in Spain and the recent failed car bombings in Britain.

Handling so many cases can be an elaborate undertaking. Years ago, an officer would simply pick up a suspicious package to see whether it contained a bomb, said Lou Cannon, president of the union that represents district police.

Such a reaction seems primitive today, when bomb technicians are typically brought in to analyze suspicious packages. If concerns linger, the response can involve X-ray machines to examine the device and robots to destroy it. The process can drag on for hours.

“It really takes away from responding to other needs, particularly in cities that are facing a rise in violent crime,” said Joseph Carter, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.