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Threats Mount Against Public Officials: 'Not What I Signed Up For'

Officials at all levels of government are receiving increased threats. They're not getting as much support as they should from officials at the highest levels or, in some cases, from law enforcement.

Protesters marching outside L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti's house.
Not all protests outside Mayor Eric Garcetti's official residence in Los Angeles are peaceful like this one. Some have required a police presence for protection. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
TNS
There was a rumor her house had burned down. Kim Gray, a member of the Richmond, Va., city council, called the police chief directly, who told her officers would be alerted. None came, even after Gray and her neighbors called when a mob of about 200 formed outside her house. Some were armed with rifles, yelling “burn it down” and pointing lasers into her children’s bedroom.

That was back in July. Since then, there have been explosions on Gray’s block. Her security camera continues to capture video of people yelling threats at her house. “My 12-year-old has asthma,” Gray says. “I had to move him out multiple times because of the tear gas and cars burning.”

Around the country, public officials have received an increasing number of threats. Americans who are angry about police brutality, pandemic restrictions or the election outcome have taken it out on people who work for the government — not just those elected to positions of authority, but lower-level workers doing their jobs in suddenly contentious fields.

Along with others targeted this year, Gray says she supports the right to protest, but says that doesn’t extend to intimidation tactics at home. “I made a strong distinction between the peaceful protesters who were out expressing themselves and their First Amendment rights and people who came with the intent to destroy the neighborhood and do some serious harm,” Gray says.

In Richmond alone, 15 unruly protesters were arrested outside the home of Commonwealth Attorney Colette McEachin, where a police officer was injured. The Richmond Police Department assigned a security detail to the previously unguarded Mayor Levar Stoney in the face of “serious, credible and ongoing threats.” 

Across the country, numerous mayors have witnessed raucous protests outside their homes. On Tuesday, Joyce Warshaw resigned as mayor of Dodge City, Kan., citing threats she’d received after expressing support for a mask mandate. 

For elected officials, getting criticized comes with the job. But this year they’ve encountered a new level of anger, with kidnapping plots launched against multiple governors. The alleged plot against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer included plans to take over the capitol and hold summary executions of public officials. 

“I’ve had threats of violence. I’ve had people show up at meetings and say they hope I’m assassinated when we shut schools,” says Kim Gray. “It’s never, ever gotten to a point where I felt unsafe in my home and I felt my children were in danger.”

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Kim Gray, a member of the Richmond, Va., city council, has had her home surrounded by mobs of angry protesters, opposed to her politically. (Facebook)


Across the country, dozens of health officials have quit since the pandemic began, some citing death threats and harassment. “It’s extraordinarily strange where public health officials are public figures, and part of this whole wild new life is threats,” says Sara Cody, health officer for Santa Clara County, Calif. 

Earlier this month, a meeting of the four-county Idaho health district that includes Boise was brought to an abrupt end when protesters gathered not only outside the district office but banged on the doors of board members participating remotely from home. “Having people intimidate you outside your home, that’s asking a lot of these civil servants,” says Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. 

The newest targets are election administrators. Several secretaries of state have received death threats. As Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson put up Christmas decorations with her family on a recent Saturday night, two-dozen protesters, some armed, yelled conspiracy theories through bullhorns and said “you’re murderers.” 

“I am a vociferous advocate for the right and importance of peaceful protest as enshrined in the United States Constitution,” Benson wrote. “But a line is crossed when the gatherings occur at private residences with the express goal to intimidate public officials who are carrying out their oath of office.”  

Thus far, most of these incidents have been more alarming than truly dangerous. “Luckily, we haven’t seen very much violence directed at public officials, despite the threats,” says Brandon del Pozo, a former Burlington, Vt., police chief. “When those are serious, as in the Michigan case, the feds have acted swiftly.”

But people don’t need to get hurt for threats to have an effect. Intimidation is not only unpleasant, but can lead people to make decisions they wouldn’t have otherwise. After dozens of her fellow Pennsylvania GOP legislators sent a letter calling on their congressional delegation to reject electoral votes for Joe Biden, state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward told The New York Times, “If I would say to you, ‘I don’t want to do it,’ I’d get my house bombed tonight.” 

Some number of officials will just walk away. When your life can be threatened just for doing your job, you can’t blame people who want to find a different job.

“You can’t rely on a system where people accept martyrdom as the price of doing their job,” said commentator David Plotz

‘No Longer a Private Citizen’

In August, a math teacher named Alan Viarengo was arrested for stalking and threatening Cody, the Santa Clara County public health director. Viarengo allegedly has ties to the Boogaloo Bois, a right-wing extremist group that seeks to foment civil war and whose members have been accused of killing two law enforcement officers in the Bay Area. 

Viarengo wasn’t the only one threatening Cody. She remains under 24-hour protection. Initially, after she issued a stay-at-home order back in March, sheriff’s deputies drove her to and from work, but now they’re with her constantly. “I am no longer a private citizen and this is not what I signed up for,” she says.

Residents are angry about pandemic restrictions, but most of the threats directed to Cody are personal in nature, not about policy. When people show up at the county building to protest, Cody says, “That’s the way democracy is supposed to work.” When they show up at night with megaphones outside her house, that’s harassment, disturbing the peace of her family and her neighbors. 

Because of the unrelenting demands of her job, Cody is often not even home when protesters show up. “They’re not disturbing me, but they are disturbing people in my household,” she says. 

Cody says she feels safe, thanks to the protection she’s received. Still, she misses her privacy. It all hit home when she went shopping to prepare a birthday dinner for one of her children. A deputy popped open the back of the smoked-window SUV, so Cody loaded flowers and the makings of a cake next to a Kevlar vest. 

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Dr. Sara Cody, health officer and director of the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department, has received police protection from violent threats triggered by pandemic measures. (Yichuan Cao/Sipa USA/TNS)


However surreal her situation, Cody says she feels lucky. She notes that state and local health officials throughout California have left during the pandemic, due to the personal toll their jobs have taken. When she speaks with her peers around the country, she recognizes that many of them do not enjoy the same level of political support she’s received from elected officials in Santa Clara County. “It’s brought all of us to our knees, but I am doing it with a lot of support,” she says.

Giafranco Pezzino, the health officer in Shawnee County, Kan., was set to retire on Dec. 31, but quit on Monday, after county commissioners loosened COVID-19 restrictions.

“When I think about my colleagues who don’t have what I have, I’m just stunned at just their sheer grit,” Cody says. “I think that a system that is dependent on a cadre of people to operate just on sheer grit and fumes isn’t much of a system.”

Wanting to Overturn an Election By Force

Electoral College voting was televised throughout the day. Not so the vote in Arizona, which was held in an undisclosed location, due to threats. In Michigan, the state Legislature was closed for business as electors met to cast their votes in the capitol, escorted from their cars by police.

As with legal challenges surrounding the presidential election, threats against administrators proliferated in the handful of states that proved decisive. But such threats occurred everywhere. “In a voice message today, our elections team was threatened with execution by firing squad,” according to the Vermont secretary of state’s office.

Gabriel Sterling, voting system implementation manager for the state of Georgia, drew national attention with a heated speech calling on President Trump and other top officials to denounce the threats launched against election administrators and contractors. “You need to step up and say this... stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling said. “Someone’s going to get hurt. Someone’s going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed.”

People in Trump’s circle have not only failed to condemn the violence, but have fanned the flames. “He should be drawn and quartered. Taken out at dawn and shot,” Trump's attorney Joseph DiGenova said of Chris Krebs, a Homeland Security election official fired by Trump. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon said that FBI Director Christopher Wray and federal infectious disease director Anthony Fauci should be beheaded and their heads mounted on pikes “as a warning to federal bureaucrats.” 

On Monday, Michigan state Rep. Gary Eisen said he’d be part of an event disrupting the electoral vote, saying he could not promise there wouldn’t be violence. He was quickly stripped of his committee assignments for the remainder of the year. 

“We have been consistent in our position on issues of violence and intimidation in politics — it is never appropriate and never acceptable,” House Speaker Lee Chatfield said in a statement. “That applies to threats made toward public officials, and it must also apply when the public officials open the door to violent behavior and refuse to condemn it.”

How Much Protection Is Necessary?

In 1988, the Supreme Court upheld municipal bans on picketing outside of people’s homes. Most of those laws were passed in response to anti-abortion protesters jeering doctors at their homes.

The anti-harassment law in Virginia, which makes it a misdemeanor to picket at a person’s home or “disrupt any individual’s right to tranquility in his home,” is older. It dates back to the days when the Ku Klux Klan targeted people at home. “I live in a historically Black neighborhood, Jackson Ward,” says Gray, the Richmond council member. “It brings back a lot of troubling times and memories from having grown up in the South.”

Gray, who ran for mayor this year, became a target because she made a comment that appeared to equate violent demonstrators with the Klan. The level of violence among some individuals calling to “defund the police,” she said, put her in mind of her father’s experience when she was a child, being beaten and left for dead by the Klan. “It got spun into me saying Black Lives Matter was the Klan,” she says. "Four white guys with faces coveed, they told me I couldn't go down the street in my own neighborhood."

Despite the fact that she’d spoken with the chief, police never came that July night when she and her neighbors called 911. According to a police department statement, officers “advised her throughout the protest in front of her home” and “closely monitored” the situation.

That raises the question of how law enforcement should respond to threats. Having officers on the scene can escalate a situation, as has happened, for instance, outside Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home recently. “It’s a very difficult thing for police to respond to,” says del Pozo, the former Burlington police chief. “If they disperse that crowd, they’ll say they’re violating everyone’s First Amendment rights.”

Offering 24/7 protection to officials who’ve received threats is a costly business. A lone bodyguard translates into at least six — more likely nine — officers to cover a week’s worth of shifts, says del Pozo, who formerly served with the New York police department’s intelligence division.

“The law enforcement instinct that most threats are frustration and empty is correct,” he says. “It’s just a needle in a haystack to find the threats that come to fruition.”

For a threat to be taken seriously, most likely it has to be made in the real world — not just digitally. It has to come from a person who is in close enough geographic proximity to the target to inflict harm and it has to be made persistently. “People calling for you to be beheaded, fired, thrown in the fire pit or whatever, that's just noise,” Fauci said. “You don't pay attention to that.” 

Fauci has had a security detail since April, due to various threats. Simply as a matter of resource allocation, law enforcement is going to concentrate on protecting high-level officials, such as mayors and governors.

Where does that leave agency heads and line workers? “If an official calls and says there’s a crowd outside my house protesting or screaming, that’s something the police should respond to,” del Pozo says.





Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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