How should law enforcement respond to “threats” against government officials, particularly when the “threats” do not rise to the level of criminal activity? The question is critical when balancing concerns about protecting First Amendment Rights and protecting our nation’s government institutions. In this arena, the lines are not as black and white as we would prefer.
Many of these “so-called” threats do not break the law. For example, if somebody loses a court case, they may make veiled threats to the judge, like “I hope someday you get yours.” That comment is not a crime, but unless we are capturing, tracking, vetting and analyzing such threats, it is impossible to identify patterns of behavior.
At the federal government level, such threats are taken seriously – the U.S. Marshals Service understands the vulnerability and investigates threatening individuals. At the state level, not only are laws regarding threats different, but most jurisdictions have different policies for protecting officials, and the investigation of threats varies widely.
The recent mass shooting in Tucson, fueled by the apparent targeting of a Member of the U.S. Congress, and the information that came to light post-shooting, shines a bright light on some holes in the system. In this case, the alleged attacker displayed threatening and increasingly erratic behavior and was reportedly seen by a mental health professional; yet, he was able to “legally” buy a hand gun. Most states have no requirement to record voluntary mental health treatment. It is much easier to ask the suspect to voluntarily commit themselves, but this “short-cut” creates a gigantic loophole that can have tragic consequences.
If we do not begin to look at the threats against our institutions by people who are aggrieved, violently inclined, or mentally ill, then we will likely see more of this kind of crime.
Law enforcement has made great strides in collecting data on incidents and behaviors that are suspicious in nature. The advent of Fusion Centers and the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative (NSI) has laid the framework. In the above instance, had Jared Loughner’s threats against his professor been entered as a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR), that information could have potentially been checked before he was cleared to purchase a handgun. NSI provides access to a shared space where such activities or behaviors, that are not quite crimes, can be tracked and vetted and the data is there for future comparison and analysis. If nothing further comes of the information and no crime has been committed, the information will remain in the system according to accepted timeframes and privacy policies.
I’m proposing that law enforcement leverage the NSI to store, share and analyze threats to government officials across the country, and there could be a subset of SARs for this purpose. We collect SARs for possible threats against specific buildings – let’s also collect and evaluate data on threats to any member of government.
What I am proposing doesn’t take a new law, just application of existing methodologies to protect those in government service. A threat against any one of them is a threat against our institutions and nation.