As the United States elections draw near, law enforcement agencies are making contingencies for possible unrest at the polls, amidst heightened domestic tensions and political polarisation, and in the wake of a foiled plot to kidnap a US governor.
When former special agent Tom O’Connor held a training session for new recruits this month at the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Virginia headquarters, he turned to a key example to underscore the threat of domestic violent attacks: The October 2018 mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The shooting, which killed 11 worshippers making it the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in US history, came a little more than a week before congressional elections.
The fact that the alleged gunman was not known to police serves as a stark reminder of the difficulties facing US law enforcement agencies around next Tuesday’s election when Republican President Donald Trump will seek to fend off Democratic challenger Joe Biden, former law enforcement officials said.
Law enforcement, which has warned of potential violence around the November 3 vote, must prepare for a range of potential threats, from spontaneous acts of violence to more organised, planned attacks, according to officials. Authorities also face a disparate range of potential perpetrators from lone actors to a growing threat from violent groups, including those that are racially motivated, anti-authority and militias.
Federal agents this month foiled a plot by a group of 14 alleged conspirators, including right-wing militia members, to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, before the election. Michigan’s attorney general’s office identified at least eight of the men as members or “associates” of the self-proclaimed Michigan Wolverine Watchmen group. Most of the defendants in the alleged plot have pleaded not guilty.
The vote also comes at a time of heightened tensions. More than a dozen current and former law enforcement officials told the Reuters news agency the country’s worsening political polarisation, rising agitation over pandemic lockdowns, and high unemployment are a toxic brew that could erupt in the coming days.
The election could serve as a “trigger” for “extremists”, O’Connor said in an interview, during which he discussed his recent presentation.
Police departments in major cities across the country – from Miami to New York – say they are planning to put more officers on the street around the election or putting them on standby if trouble erupts.
Jorge Colina, chief of the Miami Police Department, said the department’s plans for November 3 include having up to 50 percent more officers working than on a typical day. Plain-clothes officers will be at polling places. A challenge for local police departments is that potentially violent actors can mobilise “with practically zero notice”, Colina said.
Police in New York City and other major metropolitan areas say they have conducted “tabletop exercises” in recent weeks to prepare for emergency scenarios around the election, ranging from demonstrations to bombs. In Chicago, authorities have discussed possibilities that included mass protests with violence and property destruction.
The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness will be monitoring online activity on Election Day in case protesters try to gather around polling stations, according to Director Jared Maples.
“So if a person says on social media, ‘Coalesce at this point and bring your guns,’ we’re aware of it in real-time,” Maples told Reuters.
But tracking and preventing potential attacks is a daunting task, current and former law enforcement officials told Reuters.
An FBI spokesman said the agency has engaged in “extensive preparations” for the election and will plan for a range of possible scenarios. The bureau collects and analyzes intelligence “to determine whether individuals might be motivated to take violent action for any reason”, the spokesman said.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a report published earlier this month said domestic violent groups and others could target events related to the presidential campaigns, the election or the immediate aftermath. “Such actors could mobilize quickly to threaten or engage in violence,” it added.
Trump has been slow to condemn right-wing violence, which his critics say is emboldening hardline groups. At a debate in September, he told the right-wing Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” after being asked to condemn white supremacists. A senior Trump administration official said the president has clearly stated “that he does not tolerate any extreme violence”.
Bluster vs action
Some say the threat around the election may be overstated. While hardline groups “talk big on the internet, it rarely translates into big action,” said JJ MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. MacNab said some acknowledge in private online platforms that they are making outlandish threats with the aim of manipulating media and researchers into inflating the threat they pose, she said.
The internet is awash with such content and differentiating between “bluster and action” can be challenging, according to Thomas Plofchan, a former DHS counterterrorism adviser who left the department in January.
Constitutional protections around freedom of speech also make it difficult to target a group or individuals simply because they espouse “extremist” views.
While discussions about plans for a crime can be grounds to launch a probe, “vague comments about civil war” are not, said Mary McCord, a former senior Department of Justice official.
Alleged domestic violent “extremists” in the US killed 48 people in 2019 – more than in any year since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, according to the DHS report released earlier this month.
Far-right actors, including white supremacists and anti-government adherents, were responsible for the majority of the 61 alleged plots and attacks in the US during the first eight months of this year, according to Washington-based think-tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Far-left hardliners, including anarchists and anti-fascists, accounted for about a fifth, with Islamist groups and others making up the rest, the centre found.
Trump has made attacking the integrity of the nation’s elections a central campaign theme. He has claimed without evidence that increased mail-in voting in light of the pandemic will be rife with fraud and that Democrats will “rig” the outcome in favour of his opponent.
The 2020 Election will be totally rigged if Mail-In Voting is allowed to take place, & everyone knows it. So much time is taken talking about foreign influence, but the same people won’t even discuss Mail-In election corruption. Look at Patterson, N.J. 20% of vote was corrupted!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 26, 2020
Several right-wing and anti-government groups told Reuters they do not plan to police the polls, but will be on standby if chaos ensues after the election.
Mike Dunn, a prominent member of the “boogaloo” anti-government movement in Virginia, told Reuters he and other “boogaloos” have no plans for Election Day. If disturbances erupt afterwards, said 20-year-old Dunn, his armed supporters will protect protesters from assailants, regardless of their political affiliation, and guard against looting. He emphasised they would use peaceful tactics to de-escalate volatile situations.
The presence of armed hardliners at protests could escalate tensions, even if the groups do not intend it, several former law enforcement officials said.
Chris Hill, the Georgia-based leader of the III% Security Force, said his group would defend property in the event of rioting and would focus on deterring violence and unrest. “I’m going to have my gear in my truck and I’m going to have my gas tank fueled and I’m going to have my boys on standby,” said Hill.