Viewpoint: Protecting government officials requires threat analysis and data collection
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 alleged 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 law enforcement officials are capturing, tracking, vetting and analyzing such threats, then it is impossible to identify patterns of behavior.
At the federal government level, such threats are taken seriously. The U.S. Marshal’s Service understands the vulnerability and investigates threatening individuals. At the state level, not only are laws regarding threats different, most jurisdictions have different policies for protecting officials, and threat investigations vary widely.
The January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson, which apparently targeted 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 that case, the alleged attacker displayed threatening and increasingly erratic behavior and was reportedly seen by a mental health professional, but he was able to legally buy a handgun. Most states have no requirement to record voluntary mental health treatment. It is much easier to ask the suspect to voluntarily commit themselves, but that supposed 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) have laid the framework
In Tucson, 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, then the information will remain in the system according to accepted timeframes and privacy policies.
Law enforcement can use the NSI to store, share and analyze threats to government officials across the country, and there could be a subset of SARs for that purpose. SARs are collected for possible threats against specific buildings — they also can be collected, and data evaluated, on threats to any member of government.
Implementing this idea does not require a new law — just application of existing methods to protect those in government service. A threat against any one of them is a threat against our institutions and nation.
Capt. Stephen Serrao is a former New Jersey State Police Counterterrorism bureau chief. He now serves as director of Law Enforcement Solutions on the Memex Solutions Team at SAS, a provider of intelligence management and data analytics solutions for law enforcement, military intelligence and commercial organizations. Serrao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.