WASHINGTON — Members of Congress receive thousands of threats a year, though just a fraction of the people who call, mail or email will ever be prosecuted — a situation that’s of great concern to the police who guard members.
Just 22 of the 7,501 threats lobbed at members during 2022 led to prosecution, the U.S. Capitol Police confirmed to States Newsroom on Tuesday. It’s a statistic the chief of police has said needs to change.
“Recognizing that threat cases are difficult to prosecute, it is disheartening to me that our prosecution rate remains low,” USCP Chief Thomas Manger said during a recent congressional hearing while talking about the 2021 numbers.
In 2022, the USCP presented 313 cases to U.S. attorney offices after determining that they represented criminal threats against members of Congress, according to a USCP spokesperson.
Twenty-two of those cases were prosecuted, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many resulted in plea deals or convictions.
The goal in many cases is to get mental health treatment, according to the USCP. Sending people who threaten members of Congress to prison “is not always the best route,” the spokesperson said.
The USCP referred 458 threat cases for prosecution during 2021, with 40 of those leading to a court case, according to Minnesota Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which held the hearing at which Manger testified.
“The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office are very helpful, but they have a huge caseload and for us, a threat against a member of Congress is our highest priority. It’s not always their highest priority,” Manger said.
“So if we have our own folks to make sure these things get prosecuted, I think it’s a big step in the right direction for us.”
Manger said USCP has made “significant inroads” on prosecutions by getting three U.S. attorneys dedicated to prosecuting threat cases against members of Congress.
He argued that prosecutions have a “deterrent effect” and said he’s working with the U.S. Department of Justice to allow the U.S. attorneys to work across state lines as needed.
“It would be nice to be able to send them where we need to send them so we can get more of those cases prosecuted,” Manger said.
The number of threats made against members has fluctuated in recent years, reaching a peak of 9,625 threats in 2021 — an average of slightly more than 26 per day.
That number was up from the 8,613 threats made in 2020, the 6,955 threats in 2019, a total of 5,206 in 2018 and 3,939 in 2017, according to USCP.
Paul Pelosi attack
Threats against members of Congress have become an unsettling reality of the everyday lives of lawmakers and staff, as has deciphering which people are likely to follow through on those threats.
The security of members and their families came to the forefront, once again, in October when a man broke into the home that former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shares with her husband, Paul. The man then allegedly attacked Paul Pelosi with a hammer while searching for the longtime Democratic lawmaker.
The man, who was quickly arrested by police inside the San Francisco home, told investigators during an interview that after he found Speaker Pelosi, if she told the “truth,” he planned to let her go, but that if she “lied,” he was planning to break “her kneecaps.”
The incident took place about three months after a man attacked New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin during a campaign event near Rochester while he was running in a bid for governor.
The man later told law enforcement he had been drinking, didn’t know who Zeldin was or that he was a politician, and said he “must have checked out” after watching a video of the incident, according to The Associated Press.
Kansas Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner testified in January against a man who was later convicted of calling in a threat to one of the congressman’s offices.
Prosecutors played a voicemail during the trial, showing the man threatened to kill LaTurner and all other members of Congress after he had declared he was the “son of God” and “Messiah,” according to The Kansas City Star.
In April 2022, a Florida man pleaded guilty to one count of threatening a federal official for sending an email to Minnesota Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar in July 2019 threatening to kill her.
The 67-year-old man sent an email with the subject line, “(You’re) dead, you radical Muslim,” after watching a press conference on television that Omar attended along with Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
In the email, the man referred to Omar and the other lawmakers as “radical rats,” and claimed he was going to shoot them in the head, according to a press release from the U.S. Justice Department.
“Threatening to kill our elected officials, especially because of their race, ethnicity or religious beliefs, is offensive to our nation’s fundamental values,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a written statement at the time.
“The Justice Department will not hesitate to prosecute individuals who violate federal laws that prohibit violent, hate-motivated threats. All elected officials, regardless of their background, should be able to represent their communities and serve the public free from hate-motivated threats and violence.”
The man was later sentenced to three years probation and fined $7,000, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
Manger said during the hearing that the USCP hopes to enhance security for lawmakers’ homes and district offices as well as for members of leadership.
“As a result of the number of threats that are coming in and the number of credible threats that we have some concern about, I believe that we need to strongly expand the number of protection agents that we have,” he said.
Manger noted that at the moment, the USCP doesn’t “provide the level of protection to some of the leadership that perhaps we should.”
“It’s certainly not on par with what is done in the executive branch,” Manger added.
He also told the panel he’s asked the USCP board “to do for the entire Congress what the House has begun to do for their members.”
“Every member of Congress would have a security system in their home, in their district offices; so that it would add a layer of protection for not only the member but their family and their staff as well,” Manger said.
Part of that process, he said, would include setting up a protection operations center where civilian employees working for the USCP would monitor the security systems as well as employees for the security system company.
“To have that redundancy and to have that instant recognition if there’s a problem and the instant response if there’s a problem, I think, provides exactly what we need in terms of enhancing the protection,” Manger said.