A man was killed after threatening Biden. It’s not just about him: threats are increasing in the US


Last week, federal agents arrested and charged Abigail Jo Shry, 43, of Alvin, Texas threatening killing the federal judge overseeing the prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

A week earlier, Craig Robertson, 75, of Provo, Utah, was shot and killed by FBI agents intent on arresting him on charges of using social media threats against President Joe Biden and the Manhattan District Attorney who has filed charges against Trump.

A month earlier, Adam Bies, 47, of Mercer, Pennsylvania, pleaded guilty to 14 counts threats Online against federal officials. Bies was arrested after a gun battle with FBI agents at his home last August; He faces 10 years in prison.

The flood of news about people being arrested, imprisoned or killed because of threats is no accident. The number of people who are being prosecuted nationwide because of threats has risen sharply in recent years.

In the past year, federal officials have charged more people with public threats — against elected officials, law enforcement and justice officials, educators and health care workers — than in any previous decade. according to the research results from the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center at the University of Nebraska, Omaha.

This year, the trend has continued, said Seamus Hughes, a lead researcher on the team.

“We are on track to match, if not surpass, the number of arrests at the federal level this year when it comes to communicating threats against public officials,” Hughes said. “Trendlines are up – violent rhetoric is increasing and sadly normalizing, and that's worrying.”

A year ago this month, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued a joint alert about increasing threats against law enforcement officials. The warning came days after FBI agents raided Trump's club and residence in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, looking for classified documents that Trump has since been charged with.

Trump, who is seeking the Republican nomination to run again in 2024, also faces another state indictment in Washington, DC, and local indictments new York And Georgia. After the indictment of Georgia, material purporting to be photos or home addresses circulated on right-wing websites the grand jury of the casealong with discussions of threats against them.

In this tense political environment, which may also see a presidential front runner on trial, experts warn the menacing rhetoric is likely only to increase.

The University of Nebraska data is a snapshot of a broader trend; It only captures prosecutions by the federal government. Many more threats are investigated by local law enforcement every year, and even more go unreported, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

“All sorts of agencies have reported an increase in threats,” Pitcavage said. “There are a lot of people out there who use language to upset others.”

Once that anger sparks a threat, encounters with law enforcement can ensue. Regardless of whether the initial threat appeared realistic, the danger often becomes a reality at this point.

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A set of threats

Federal law contains provisions that prohibit laws threats in various forms: against federal officials or their family members, federal employees, federal agencies, witnesses and voters.

The law also broadly prohibits any communication that poses a threat if it in any way crosses state or national borders—a scenario that often applies to communications over a telephone network or the Internet.

Threats alone do not always seem equally likely to lead to violence.

Shry, the Texas woman accused of threatening a federal judge, and Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston-based US official, had been charged with previous threats at the scene. The investigators are taking action against them in the federal criminal complaint note that they interviewed her at her home and found that she “had no plans to travel to Washington DC or Houston to carry out anything she had said.” Nonetheless, agents concluded that Shry was unquestionably transmitting an interstate threat.

Other threats quickly escalate into violence.

When Ricky Shiffer, a man from southern Ohio, opened an account with Truth Social last year, he began posting a litany of far-right conspiracy theories, fueled by outrage over the state raid of Mar-a-Lago. Only nine days laterhe drove to an FBI office in Cincinnati with a rifle and a nail gun and attempted to blast himself inside. After a chase and a standoff, he was shot dead.

Sometimes just investigating the threat proves deadly, as was the case in Provo, Utah.

Local residents reported to local media they saw Robertson as a harmless elderly neighbor. But five years earlier, Robertson had confronted the utility workers With a gun.

And court documents in the federal case against him show that he made detailed threats of shooting deaths, citing a specific location and weapon. As the agents advanced on August 9, he was shot; The FBI said an internal investigation is ongoing.

Threats not protected by the First Amendment

People often assume that their speech is always protected under the First Amendment, Hughes said. But not every expression of opinion is protected, and the more specific the threat, the more likely prosecutors are to take action, he said.

“For a prosecutor, the ideal case is as direct as possible,” Hughes said. “Someone announces, ‘I'm going to kill someone with this kind of weapon at this time on this day in this place.' This is the ideal situation for a prosecutor.”

Michael German, a former FBI special agent and a fellow of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, agreed. At the FBI, German said he often had to look closely at communications to determine if they represented a legitimate threat or protected political speech.

But legitimate threats cannot be ignored, German said. The recipients are victims. They often feel fear and harassment. And it's on law enforcement to investigate, as threats can lead to real acts of violence, he said.

“There's a pretty clear line between someone saying something very mean and nasty about what bad things should happen to you and being a real threat,” German said.

The threats increase

The University of Nebraska team determined how many federal prosecutions were filed for threats each year from 2013 to 2022.

In this decade, the number of such cases has nearly doubled, from 38 in 2013 to 74 in 2022, the researchers noted.

In a new analysis exclusively made available to USA TODAY, the team found 44 such prosecutions this year.

The cases include threats against elected officials and law enforcement officials, but also some cases of threats against poll workers and health care workers, including two cases in which Planned Parenthood was the alleged target.

Hughes noted that prosecutions are increasing not only because more people are making threats, but also because the federal government has prioritized such cases. In the past, he said, the FBI and Justice Department have often referred such cases to local prosecutors rather than filing them themselves.

“A Dangerous Situation”

Pitcavage, Hughes and other experts are quick to point out that not all threats against officials come from the far right or from Trump supporters.

Just this month, Tracy Marie Fiorenza of Plainfield, Illinois, was indicted by federal prosecutors for allegedly sending emails to the principal of a Palm Beach, Florida school. threatening Killing Trump and his younger son Barron.

But the majority of the threats pursued by the federal government come from far-right parties, Hughes said.

Rachel Carroll Rivas, associate director of research, reporting and analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which has been monitoring far-right and anti-government groups for decades, said her team recently observed “a significant increase in advocacy of violence against public officials.” , elected officials and candidates.”

Rivas pointed out that recent Justice Center polls show that 41% of Republicans and 34% of Democrats believe that “some level of force may be necessary to protect the country from radical extremists.”

By continuing to post disinformation about the 2020 election on his social media account, and by continuing to label his law enforcement as an unfair and dangerous “witch hunt,” Trump and his allies are only fanning the flames of anger felt by his base, Rivas said.

“When you mix a significant acceptance of violence with conspiracy propaganda about the fairness and trustworthiness of our elections, you create a dangerous situation,” she told USA TODAY.

Pitcavage said the surge is likely to continue. “All sorts of people and institutions will continue to face many threats,” Pitcavage said, including scenarios we haven't yet foreseen. “It's like there's a gas leak in the country and any match could set it off – but you don't necessarily know who has that match.”

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