- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

As law enforcement agencies around the country reeled from a fatal attack on Dallas police officers this month, the Detroit Police Department wasn’t taking any chances with threats made against its officers.

Days after five Dallas officers were gunned down by a man out to target police, Detroit Police Chief James Craig announced that his department had arrested four people who posted messages on social media that included threats against officers.

But more than a week after the arrests, prosecutors are debating whether to bring criminal charges against individuals who posted messages including “Kill all white cops.”

As prosecutors review details of the individual cases, it remains to be seen whether the messages are specific enough to be regarded as criminal threats or if they are general in nature and therefore considered protected free speech, according to First Amendment specialist Ken Paulson.

“We live in a country in which a lot of people say outrageous things, and sometimes they are vaguely threatening,” said Mr. Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center.

In evaluating whether the threats against police in Detroit and elsewhere rise to the level of criminal charges, prosecutors look for specificity that would make a threat legitimate rather than general, he said.

“The key question is whether the threat is directed toward a specific individual and if it is meant to frighten someone,” Mr. Paulson said. “It can’t be hyperbole. For something to be a true threat, it has to be clearly targeted and imminent so that someone learning of the threat would be reasonably concerned for their safety.”

Amid a backdrop of escalating tensions between police departments and the communities they serve after fatal shootings of officers in Dallas and in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police are on edge.

Departments across the country have undertaken enhanced measures to improve officer safety. In Los Angeles, police assigned members of specialized crime-fighting units to back up officers responding to routine calls. Baltimore police have begun sending two squad cars to every call. Dispatchers in Denver have urged officers to travel in pairs indefinitely and “keep their head on a swivel” to protect themselves against potential threats, according to The Associated Press.

In earlier comments to Detroit media, Chief Craig said he took a no-nonsense approach in handling threats of violence against police.

“I believe that when you make a threat like that, more so in today’s environment, that’s a problem for me,” he said. “We’re not going to tolerate a threat to kill a police officer. We’re just hopeful the prosecutor’s office determines that a crime was committed.”

Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County prosecutor’s office, said the cases have been under review since Thursday. She declined to discuss the specifics ahead of any charging decision.

But the incidents prompted a joint warning from the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s offices in Michigan that sought to remind citizens that, while freedom of speech is protected, that right “cannot be misconstrued to include directed threats toward another individual, group or location.”

“Once threatening speech is directed toward a specific person; a group of people, including law enforcement agencies or ethnic communities; or specific locations in a community, it can be viewed as a credible threat,” reads the joint statement. “Individuals who communicate threats may be subject to prosecution.”

Police have not disclosed the full text of all of the messages under investigation. According to The Detroit News, one message posted on Facebook states, “It’s time to wage war and shoot the police first.”

It was accompanied by a plea that people contact the author to organize an effort to shoot officers. In another message, a Detroit man wrote that the Dallas gunman was his “hero” and “inspired me to do the exact same thing.”

Another man posted photos of officers being shot on his Facebook page with the message, “This needs to happen more often.”

Other threats against police also have resulted in arrests.

Police in Buffalo, New York, last week arrested Arthur Jordan, who was accused of writing in a Facebook post, “Let’s Start Killin Police Lets See How Dey Like It” on the day of the Dallas police killings. WGRZ-TV reported that in addition to the Facebook post, he sent other threats to the Buffalo Police Department and was charged with communication of a threat to injure.

In Hartford, Connecticut, at least three people have been charged in the past week in connection with threats against officers. Brandon Mcarthur, who was in police custody at a hospital, threatened an officer and his family. “I swear on my grandmother’s grave, that as soon as I get out of here, I’m going to shoot you in the face,” he said, according to WVIT-TV. He was charged with three counts of second-degree threatening.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police departments receive threats all the time and don’t have the resources to track down every person who makes one. She noted that while the evaluation of a threat depends on the circumstances of each case, threats against an officer’s family tend to strike a specific nerve.

“You can say a lot of things to people that is protected, but when you threaten someone explicitly, this is when you have to start taking it seriously,” Ms. Haberfeld said. “When it becomes specific, like I know where you live or I know where your child goes to school, it generates a more serious reaction.”

Defining what crosses the line from protected speech into criminal territory can be difficult for officers, particularly given stresses police are facing in the wake of high-profile attacks, Mr. Paulson said.

“These are tense times, and police officers are particular feeling vulnerable these days,” he said. “Any police officer making an arrest on the basis of someone’s speech would be well-advised to check in with a prosecuting attorney before making arrest.”

• Andrea Noble can be reached at anoble@washingtontimes.com.

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