Threats against Congressmen increase and change jobs
A few months ago MP Norma Torres (D-Pomona) received an anonymous video of someone following her car. The camera pans to a 9mm pistol on the seat when a male voice says, “I see you. I have something for you.”
In June police charged a man with “terrorist threats” against New York Republican Tom Reed by leaving a dead rat with a noose around its neck and a brick with the name of one of his family members on the Congressman’s door.
Police intervened in January when more than a dozen Trump supporters confronted, surrounded and threatened MP Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) as he took a flight at a Washington airport.
In a year that began with the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, threats against Congressmen soar.
In the first three months of the year, the Capitol Police recorded 4,135 threats against members of Congress. If this pace continues, overall threats will double in 2021 compared to 2020.
It’s a trend that has been growing for years and the Capitol Police are trying hard to keep up. They are rethinking the way they protect Congressmen in and outside Washington, forging closer ties with the FBI, and opening branch offices outside of the capital for the first time.
And it changes the job for lawmakers, who now have to walk a fine line between accessibility for the people they represent and the safety of themselves, their families and their employees. After January 6th, some members temporarily moved their families because they feared people might target their homes. Others wore bulletproof vests at the presidential inauguration.
“It’s difficult, and especially difficult for the family,” said Rep. John Garamendi (D-Walnut Grove), who once stood a gun on him as a state legislature during a town hall. “This job involves risks. There is no doubt. We spend millions of dollars letting everyone know who we are. So you become a target. “
Experts blame much of the surge on social media and cable news and how easy it has become to threaten congressmen behind the anonymity of the internet.
Four years of President Trump’s divisive and racist rhetoric played a role, they say, encouraging people to say publicly things they might have railed privately about in the past.
It is also a side effect of increasing partiality and decreasing politeness. Members have contributed to the problem by sometimes encouraging their followers to harass political rivals. Activists find it more acceptable to confront lawmakers, not just in town halls, but at home or while dining in restaurants.
Some threats have escalated into violent physical assault.
Prior to January 6, 2017 there was the shooting of Republican Congressmen and staff in training for the Congressional Baseball Game and the 2011 shooting of Arizona Democratic MP Gabrielle Giffords at an inaugural event.
The rise in threats has grown exponentially over the past few years. In 2016, the Capitol Police investigated 902 threats, former House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving said in a June 2017 letter to the federal electoral commission.
By 2018 it was 5,206 and by 2020 it rose to 8,613, according to Capitol Police figures provided to the Los Angeles Times.
Capitol Police officers declined interview requests. Many congressmen also do not publicly discuss the threats. Dozens declined requests to speak about their safety.
Simply capturing, monitoring and investigating the threats has become more difficult for the Capitol Police.
In May, the Department’s Inspector General recommended stepping up intelligence gathering and monitoring, including creating an entirely new department with analysts, agents, and officers, as well as hiring more agents in the threat assessment department. It also called on the Capitol Police to work more closely with the FBI to investigate threats.
In 2020, the department’s threat assessment division had just over 30 agents and analysts investigating approximately 9,000 cases, according to its response to the May Watchdog report.
In July, the Capitol Police announced they were opening satellite offices, starting in Northern California and Florida, to monitor potential threats, as these are the states where the bulk of the threats originate.
Among the billions recently passed by Congress to repay the National Guard for protecting the Capitol after Jan. 6, $ 47.8 million was spent on member safety and threat investigation, including $ 5.8 million Million US dollars for new security details; $ 35.4 million to reimburse and train federal and local law enforcement agencies to help protect members; and $ 6.6 million to hire and train additional agents to gather intelligence on potential threats.
Members hope the new offices and funding will allow the Capitol Police to take on more of the burden of identifying threats and deciding who is serious and who could vent anger online.
Garamendi, chairman of the House of Representatives’ standby subcommittee, said Capitol Police are quick to respond to threats they know but lack the resources to gather and monitor information.
“Intelligence as it applies to us individually is simply not there. The normal way is: we get a threat and then we inform the Capitol Police or the FBI, ‘Hey, we have this threat, why don’t you investigate?’ And they do, and they do a good job, ”he said. “But the intelligence – anticipating – is not there.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) said one of his employees spends hours scouring his social media accounts for threats warranting redirection to Capitol Police every time Trump uses his name online or at a rally mentioned.
“My rule is that you have to take them at their word, even though many of them may not mean it. The second you don’t take her word for it is the second you might see someone in your family hurt, ”said Swalwell.
Over the past five years, dozens of federal court cases have been heard in which people threatened the murder of Democratic and Republican MPs. Threatening a federal official is a crime that can result in a fine and up to six years in prison.
For months, Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) Carried a hidden gun and scanned the street outside his house before leaving after a man called and emailed the congressman in December to have him cut his throat skin alive and kill his going to be family.
“They would worry about any car that stopped on the street in front of the house,” Harris said. “My family felt like prisoners in their own home.”
Earlier this month, the man was sentenced and sentenced to weekend prison, two years probation, and six months of house arrest.
Harris said he accepts disagreement, but “that person didn’t call my office to complain about a policy. He called my office, threatened me and my family’s life over a political problem. “
Reed once downplayed the threats. But not after someone targets their kids.
“It traumatized my children,” Reed said of the dead rat and the brick outside his door. “I’m not ignoring the threats like I used to. You can’t ignore it. You have to realize that it’s part of the job. “
As of Jan. 6, more than 100 members have reported spending thousands of dollars on campaign money installing security systems and hiring bodyguards for public events, according to federal election forms. Some have been given permission to carry hidden weapons either at home or in Washington.
Some said they would be more likely to remove the pin that identifies them as a member of Congress when they leave the heavily fortified Capitol complex. Others dress casually on flights, wearing sweatpants and hoodies so as not to draw attention to themselves.
They insisted on additional emergency training for themselves and their staff after members fiddled with opening gas masks that they did not even know were under their seats after the January 6th confusion and terror. Staff huddled in locked offices weren’t sure whether to flee or where to go.
Swalwell said this year was the first time he had taken a break before taking his two young children to an inaugural event.
“I took them anyway because I wanted to show that we weren’t being bullied because they were part of my job in a meaningful way,” he said.
Many of the senior members of the California delegation have been repeatedly shadowed or convicted of threats against them by the Capitol Police over the past few years. Four men have been in jail since 2018 for threatening to kill MP Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles).
At home in their districts, most members rely primarily on the local police force.
Torres faced a barrage of online and personal threats this spring following a dispute with El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele.
When several men showed up outside their house, blinking gang signs and trying to engage her husband in a fight, Torres scared them away with a gun. It took hours for the local police to arrive. The threats were so severe that the Capitol Police lived in their home for five days.
Torres moved from her former Washington apartment in the basement of a house to a high-rise with 24-hour security.
“I just don’t feel safe anymore,” she said.