In the wake of Monday’s Boston bombings, people in Columbus are paying attention to anything that looks out of the norm.
By lunch Wednesday, the local authorities had checked out three suspicious packages — one in the Lowe’s parking lot, another at a local attorney’s office and a third on Second Avenue near the Government Center. They all turned out to be false alarms.
“I’d rather go on 150 calls and there be nothing, ‘cause that means that the citizens of Columbus are paying attention to their surroundings and not looking at the ground,” said Columbus Homeland Security Director Brad Hicks.
A bomb technician at Lowe’s on Veterans Parkway found nothing but paper inside a suspicious briefcase left unattended in the store’s parking lot. The scratched brown briefcase raised suspicions shortly after 11 a.m. when it was found in a buggy. By 12:15 p.m., the technician had stepped out of his full-body suit and given the all clear.
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Earlier the bomb squad had been called to investigate a black trash bag on Second Avenue across from the Government Center. The bag contained two water bottles.
“Another alert citizen was doing their job, happened to recognize a black trash bag that was wrapped and tied in an odd way,” Hicks said. “It was deemed there was nothing hazardous.”
While there may have been no threat in either case, Hicks said he was glad a concerned citizen called it in.
Incoming calls about suspicious packages and potential threats are part of what local law enforcement officials expect following a tragedy like Monday’s bombings in Boston, Hicks said. In fact, the increase is not only expected, but preferred.
Muscogee County Sheriff’s Maj. Randy Robertson said the sheriff’s office is also receiving more calls in the wake of the events in Boston. Deputies investigated a suspicious package in the lobby of a local attorney’s office Wednesday morning.
“A package had been left in their office, and nobody knew who had sent it,” Robertson said. “They suited up and went in and followed procedure. They determined it was a hoax, or that someone had just forgotten the package there accidentally.”
Since Monday, the Sheriff’s Office has received an increase of calls reporting suspicious packages and people, as well as abandoned vehicles and unsafe-looking locations. Five minutes before speaking with The Ledger-Enquirer, Robertson said his office received a call about a suspicious person that was being investigated.
Robertson said he welcomes the increase, and he wished citizens were that responsive during more quiet times of the year.
“We only succeed through the diligence and observance of our citizens,” he said. “The behavior that people are displaying now, that’s the kind of behavior that people should have all year, 24 hours a day.”
Hyper-vigilance tends to wear off within a few weeks of the initial event, Robertson said and the number of complaints about the increased security go up.
“You look at something like what happened on 9/11, when everyone rallied together,” Robertson said. “How long did it take for people to complain about the increased security measures, how it was infringing on personal rights?”
Both Hicks and Robertson said citizens should fight to keep security in mind throughout the year and be ready to contact public safety if they see something out of the ordinary. Hicks said citizens can make a game out of noticing their surroundings to increase their awareness and make it part of a routine.
“What was the color of the cars you passed this morning on the way to work? Not even asking the make or model, just the color?” Hicks said. “These are the kind of things I try to ask myself on a daily basis. We can get busy going somewhere and not notice what’s around us.”
Robertson also said that citizens shouldn’t fear calling law enforcement officials, even if they’re not entirely sure something’s wrong.
“They have to make safety a part of their daily routine, and they have to trust their hunches and their instincts, and they have to not be shy about calling public safety,” Robertson said. “We serve the citizens. If you call us we’re obligated to go investigate it. Even if there’s nothing, we’re not going to get upset with you for calling.”
If the increase in calls leads to inconveniences or disruptions, citizens should try to be patient, Robertson said.
“In a perfect world, everybody would stay a heightened level, everyone would be what we call hyper-vigilant and would understand that there might be some inconveniences for everything to move safely,” Robertson said. “I had a man complain once that we were inconveniencing him because we had to shut down a business. I’d rather inconvenience a thousand citizens than see one get injured.”