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Police: A watchful public can help fight terrorism

DENVER — A store clerk's curiosity about why Najibullah Zazi was buying large quantities of beauty supply products indicated that something about the transaction wasn't quite right — and it's an example of the kind of vigilance that can combat terrorism, a police commander said Saturday.

Los Angeles police Cmdr. Joan McNamara cited this summer's incident as police chiefs meeting in Denver adopted a model for a nationwide community watch program that teaches people what behavior is truly suspicious and encourages them to report it to police.

Federal authorities allege Zazi, 24, tried to make a homemade explosive using ingredients from beauty supplies purchased at Denver-area stores. He has been jailed in New York on charges of conspiracy to detonate a weapon of mass destruction in a plot that may have targeted New York City. Zazi has denied the charges.

Zazi reportedly told an inquisitive clerk he needed a large amount of cosmetic chemicals because he had "lots of girlfriends." While his purchases weren't reported to authorities because suppliers often buy large quantities, the police chiefs hope a coordinated publicity effort will make people think differently about such encounters.

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, who developed the iWatch program with McNamara, called it the 21st century version of Neighborhood Watch.

The Major Cities Chiefs Association, headed by Bratton and composed of the chiefs of the 63 largest police departments in the U.S. and Canada, endorsed iWatch at the group's conference Saturday.

iWatch would have provided an easy way for that Colorado store clerk and others to report suspicious activity so police could launch investigations earlier, McNamara said.

"That clerk had a gut instinct that something wasn't right," she said.

Using brochures, public service announcements and meetings with community groups, iWatch is designed to deliver concrete advice on how the public can follow the oft-repeated post-Sept. 11 recommendation, "If you see something, say something."

Program materials list nine types of suspicious behavior that should compel people to call police, and 12 kinds of places to look for it. Among the indicators:

* If you smell chemicals or other fumes.

* If you see someone wearing clothes that are too big and too heavy for the season.

* If you see strangers asking about building security.

* If you see someone purchasing supplies or equipment that could be used to make bombs.

The important places to watch include government buildings, mass gatherings, schools and public transportation.

The program also is designed to ease reporting by providing a toll-free number and Web page the public can use to alert authorities. Los Angeles put up its Web site this weekend.

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