By Nicholas Simon
Capital News Service
LANSING – A little more than a year after police thwarted a kidnapping plot against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and just weeks before the anniversary of the Jan. 6 protests in Washington D.C., threats against Michigan politicians and government officials are on the rise, police say.
“In Michigan, we have experienced an uptick in threats against elected officials that started in the months leading up to the November 2020 election and has continued through today,” said Shannon Banner, manager of public affairs for the Michigan State Police.
It reflects a national trend.
The U.S. Capitol Police Department in Washington, D.C., has seen the numbers of threats more than double from just under 4,000 cases in 2017 to nearly 9,000 cases in 2020.
Officials from the Capitol Police, the agency tasked with protecting members of Congress, say they have watched recent numbers skyrocket across the country, seeing a 107% increase in threats compared with this time last year.
Michigan prosecutors are also seeing this rise in threats made against government officials at all levels, said Lynsey Mukomel, the press secretary for Michigan Attorney Gen. Dana Nessel.
Public health officials have also been targeted by more acts of political violence, according to Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids.
After hearing stories like health officials nearly getting run off of a road and other acts of violence, Brinks introduced legislation in December that would increase penalties for threatening health officials by mirroring an existing law already in place that protects Child Protective Services employees.
“I cannot stand to see another story detailing the fear these dedicated public servants must live through in order to do their jobs,” Brinks said. “And I encourage my colleagues to join me in saying ‘enough is enough.’”
The state Attorney General’s office refers these cases to their hate crimes and domestic terror unit because these cases qualify as terrorism charges under Michigan law because of political motivations.
Nessel has received multiple death threats. In a victim impact statement given in October at a sentencing hearing for a man that threatened her and her family, she describes feeling terrified and anxious while at home with her kids.
“This is not how it should be,” Nessel said to the court. “The deluge of threats that public officials have faced in the last year is unprecedented and unacceptable. No public official should be frightened of doing their job.”
Michigan politicians on both sides of the aisle have recently received threats that have made national headlines.
In November, numerous profanity-laden messages were received by Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, after he voted with Democrats to pass President Bidens’ infrastructure bill. The messages included death threats and claims that the Southwest Michigan representative was a “traitor.”
“Healthy debate and different perspectives are the hallmarks of our democracy,” Upton said in a statement. “But what we’re seeing today with threats of violence against local, state and federal officials is flat out wrong. We need to return to a higher standard of civility and respect in our politics.”
In the wake of these calls, Upton reportedly joked with Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minnesota, who has received threats from a Republican lawmaker, to show support and solidarity for his fellow lawmakers.
“It’s unfortunate that death threats have become a far too frequent fact of life for public officials across party lines,” Upton said. “Civility – and the prospect for good, common-ground policy – is sadly going down the drain.”
Also in November, the Dearborn offices of U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat, were broken into and vandalized. Items that belonged to her late husband, John Dingell, who served the U.S. House for a record of 59 years, were some of the items that were targeted in the break-in.
“Our door and windows were smashed and memorabilia — especially John’s items — were broken,” Dingell said in a statement. “Thankfully, my staff and I are safe and no one was hurt.”
The office had been receiving nonspecific threats for months before the incident. Dingell said that this puts her staff under constant pressure, adding that “behavior like this needs to stop.”
Dingell reported the incident to local police and to the U.S. Capitol Police, which assists with investigations of attacks against members of Congress in much the same way that the Secret Service does for the president.
Dingell said the motive for the break-in was unclear and her office is working with the Capitol Police.
“In the meantime, please be safe, and please spread a little kindness,” she said.