Garbage Collectors Around the U.S. Trained to Report Suspicious Activity

A 2008 report from KOMO news in Seattle provides an overview of the Waste Watch program.


Public Intelligence

Several newspapers in southern Florida are reporting that trash collectors are receiving training from their employer Waste Management to work with local law enforcement to report crimes and other suspicious activities. The training is part of a program called Waste Watch that is designed to leverage the fact that “drivers are familiar with their routes and are in the same neighborhoods every day” which “puts them in the unique position to spot unusual activity and anything out of the ordinary.” Press releases from Waste Management describe the program as a way of opening “channels of communication with the authorities to help keep them informed and alert of what’s happening in their city’s streets and alleys.”

Waste Watch training sessions are conducted by former FBI agents in association with security representatives from Waste Management. The program has been operating since 2004 when it was first introduced by Waste Management’s Corporate Security Services and Community Relations offices. Waste Watch operates in more than 100 communities around the country including Utah, New York, Nevada, South Carolina, California, Oregon, Michigan, Washington and Florida. There is little public information available on the program or the content of training material presented to Waste Watch participants.

Given the recent proliferation of programs dedicated to promoting suspicious activity reporting, more information is needed on the program’s guidelines for detecting and reporting suspicious activity. FBI flyers designed to promote suspicious activity reporting have listed actions like insisting on paying cash or trying to cover one’s computer screen as evidence of potential terrorist activity. A similar guide produced by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness listed yawning and repeatedly touching one’s face as suspicious activities. The Waste Watch program does seem to have produced some positive results, including helping to catch vandals or petty thieves. In 2008 the program was awarded the “Award of Excellence in the Neighborhood Watch” by the National Sheriff’s Association.

While encouraging citizens and businesses to look out for criminal activity is a worthwhile cause, the recent proliferation of programs for reporting suspicious activity has raised concerns from civil liberties groups about the potential for turning citizens and business owners into effective spies on their neighbors and customers. The Department of Homeland Security’s “If You See Something, Say Something” program has greatly expanded in the last few years by partnering with the NBA, MLB, NFL, MLS, NCAA, religious organizations, hotel television providers and even Walmart to promote suspicious activity reporting. Fusion centers and cities around the country are creating websites and phone applications to help citizens report suspicious activity, complete with photographs and geolocation information. However, the “Waste Watch” program extends citizen surveillance one step further by leveraging the manpower of the country’s largest waste collection company to look not just for suspicious activity, but for “anything out of the ordinary.”

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