- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 1, 2016

Law enforcement officials are aghast over a Detroit prosecutor’s decision this week not to bring criminal charges against three men who posted messages threatening police on Facebook, and hope a new review by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office will result in prosecution.

But civil rights activists question the allocation of resources for the investigations when women’s complaints to police departments around the country about the same type of behavior are routinely ignored or trivialized.

“That’s very troubling, and it gives rise to an acute concern that law enforcement is only taking online threats seriously when they identify as the targets rather than women,” said Lee Rowland, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

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Ms. Rowland said the ACLU and women’s rights advocates routinely hear distressing accounts from women who try to report online threats but are scoffed at by law enforcement and “told to stay off-line or off certain websites.”

In the case of the Detroit threats — which included Facebook posts such as “All lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter!!!! Kill all white cops!!!!” — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy determined that the messages didn’t constitute true threats under terrorism statutes and that her office would be unable to lawfully prove the cases.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig expressed disappointment in the decision, and the state attorney general now is reviewing the cases to determine if his office can substantiate the charges.

Chief Craig said his department takes all threats seriously but added that, in a climate in which police officers are being directly targeted for violence, it is important to pursue the cases to make known that threats against his agency would not be tolerated.

“I understand it is a more challenging area, but it’s been done in other places,” Chief Craig said of charges brought elsewhere in the state against individuals who made online threats against officers.

Chief Craig admits that he thought the evidence in two of his department’s four cases, one of which remains under investigation, was “murky and a little vague.”

“But I said, given the environment today, I think it’s important that we make an effort to pursue these cases,” he said.

Prosecutors in Saginaw County, Michigan, last month filed charges including solicitation of first-degree premeditated murder against Billy R. Thompson, who had posted messages on Facebook that included, “I think it’s time to strap up and make a police defense plan. I’d rather kill then [sic] be killed. And if nobody is going to do anything about these cops then Imma [sic] make sure my sons and daughters have a few less cops and judges in the world to worry about!”

Acknowledging that threats made against police and civilians need to be taken seriously, National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson said he thinks prosecutors need to take into consideration the fact that officers have been killed recently by individuals who have espoused similar views online.

“I think there has to be a recognition that the First Amendment is important, but free speech does not include threats of violence or bullying some kid online to the point they kill themselves,” Mr. Johnson said. “That’s not protected speech, that’s not the type of speech that the framers of the Constitution thought was essential to a democracy.”

In a letter to Ms. Worthy and shared with NAPO members, Mr. Johnson wrote that the prosecutor’s decision not to bring charges or even alert Detroit officers of complications in the case was “a slap in the face.”

He pointed to the targeted and fatal attacks on law enforcement officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as evidence of the gravity of such threats.

“In the wake of these killings, it is indefensible that your office would not take these social media threats seriously,” Mr. Johnson wrote.

In explaining her decision not to bring charges, Ms. Worthy noted that in addition to concerns about Miranda rights violations and jurisdiction issues, the messages were too vague and were not targeted toward a specific enough group to constitute a true threat.

Free speech experts say that when prosecutors are evaluating whether to bring charges in these types of cases, they look for a specificity that would make a threat legitimate rather than general in nature.

The threat to kill all white police officers, for example, was generally aimed at too broad a group, according to Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center.

“When that group is tens of thousands of white police officers, no one officer can feel like he or she is the likely target of that message,” Mr. Paulson said. “It gets more interesting if someone says ‘We need to kill all white police officer in Detroit, particularly those who patrol the following blocks.’ That could very well be actionable.”

Reviewing what has been publicly released about the Detroit cases, neither Mr. Paulson nor Ms. Rowland believes charges could be substantiated.

Ms. Rowland said the case highlights the need for digital technology training for law enforcement, something the ACLU has advocated for in the past to ensure police officers have the knowledge and training they need to investigate online threats made against both officers and civilians.

The case also represents a teachable moment for officers, Mr. Paulson said.

“Sometimes this is complicated, but people can’t be deprived of their liberties if they haven’t committed a crime,” he said. “This is new territory for police officers, and they are going to get better at it or their departments are going to get sued.”

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