Lansing braces for violence but fears some threats aren't taken seriously
Lansing officials are bracing for right-wing violence, as the city’s mayor is calling on the Michigan National Guard to safeguard the city and officials plan to erect a six-foot fence around the state Capitol on Friday.
On Tuesday, amid FBI warnings of violent plans nationwide by extremists, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor petitioned Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to deploy the Guard, while Capitol officials confirmed they are taking precautions on the advice of the state police.
“We have plywood ready to go in case windows are broken,” said John Truscott, vice chair of the Capitol Commission that oversees the state’s capitol building.
The safeguards follow a chaotic week in Washington, D.C. when a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters breached the U.S. Capitol, leaving dozens injured and five dead, including a D.C. police officer.
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An FBI bulletin, first reported by Yahoo News, warns that armed protests are planned in all 50 states this week until President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 20.
The memo claims that Michigan-based members of the far-right Boogaloo movement are planning violence during the protests — and one follower suggested using a gasoline-based device with a tripwire to cause a distraction so others could “take” the Capitol.
“Given recent events in Washington, D.C., we must prepare for the worst,” Schor said in a Tuesday statement.
Michigan joins other states that are boarding Capitol building windows and beefing up security — and state officials say that threats against them are increasing but not always deemed credible by police.
Police acknowledge that broad threats have risen since the Nov. 3 election, but say they must specifically target an individual group or person to be deemed credible for investigation.
“Not every disgusting act of language is a crime,” said Matthew Schneider, U.S. attorney over the Eastern District of Michigan.
Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, said she and her staff have feared for their safety since last spring but law enforcement hasn’t always adequately pursued credible threats against them.
“The fact that they are willing to protect the Capitol structure, but not the people within it is inexcusable,” she said.
State Police spokesperson Shanon Banner said she is “not aware of credible threats in which the MSP was involved that have not been acted upon.”
‘Heed that warning’
While Banner disputed Pohutsky’s assertion, she acknowledged that state police are aware of “online promotion” of marches and have increased police presence outside the Capitol “out of an abundance of caution” for the next few weeks.
“Security enhancements include both seen and unseen measures,” she said. “We are in communication with both federal officials and other states.”
Lansing Police will assist the State Police if they request back up, but the Michigan State Police are the primary law enforcement agency for the Capitol and surrounding grounds, a Lansing police spokesperson told Bridge Michigan.
“When a group of people tells you they plan to show up with guns, that they have the potential to be violent, we should heed that warning,” said Lansing City Council President Peter Spadafore, who asked the mayor to request the National Guard.
Chelsea Parisio, a spokesperson for Whitmer, said the governor is monitoring the situation closely and “will ensure that the necessary security measures are in place.”
The security measures follow a unanimous decision Monday by the Capitol Commission to ban long guns in the Capitol after months of debate and a previous split vote over the measure.
Concealed weapons are still allowed for permit holders, though, and Democrats say the ban doesn’t go far enough.
“My job is not to provide state employees & residents or other visitors to our Capitol with a false sense of security, especially given the current state of affairs in Michigan and around the nation,” Attorney General Dana Nessel wrote in a Tuesday tweet.
“I repeat-the Michigan Capitol is not safe.”
My job is not to provide state employees & residents or other visitors to our Capitol with a false sense of security, especially given the current state of affairs in Michigan and around the nation.— Dana Nessel (@dananessel) January 12, 2021
I repeat-the Michigan Capitol is not safe.
‘Nobody knew where to send me’
Pohutsky is one of several public officials who said they encountered a complicated web of law enforcement responses when trying to report a credible threat from an easily-identifiable person.
After the election, Robin Laurain, co-chair of the Michigan Green Party, said a man called her repeatedly and told her he would murder her in the street if he saw her because she was a “communist.”
She was able to search the number and find the address and name of the Brighton man making the calls. So she called the Brighton police to report him.
They told her to call the Michigan State Police.
Then the Michigan State Police told her to file a complaint with the Attorney General’s office, whom she has yet to hear back from about the status of an investigation.
“Nobody knew where to send me,” Laurain said.
“Anybody can come to my house,” she added, noting that having previously run for office, her address is listed online.
Nessel’s office declined to comment on whether it is currently investigating any threats.
“We generally do not comment on or disclose details of an investigation until it is complete and charges are authorized, or until a case is closed that does not warrant additional legal action – and we will not discuss ongoing cases,” said Ryan Jarvi, a Nessel spokesperson.
‘People need to be charged’
Pohutsky said Nessel told her the Michigan State Police are not always referring credible death threats to the Attorney General’s office.
As proof, Pohutsky noted that a Charlotte, Michigan, man, Michael Varrone, was arrested and prosecuted only after police alleged he called in a bomb threat to the Lansing Capitol last week — and not immediately following death threats he’s charged with making in December to Rep. Cynthia Johnson, D-Detroit.
Johnson served on the House Oversight Committee, which heard testimony from President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in December. Johnson said she received death threats from Trump supporters after questioning the lawyer.
The Michigan State Police were not directly involved in the investigation of a voicemail message on Dec. 12 that included the threat against Johnson, since the death threats were initially reported to the House sergeant at arms, Banner said.
“While [the sergeant] shared information with us on Dec. 15 for our situational awareness, there was no request for MSP to become involved or to conduct an investigation,” she said.
Gideon D’Assandro, a spokesperson for the House sergeant-at-arms, disputed this.
“The sergeants sent it to the MSP the next day,” he said in a text message. “I can’t speak to what they did or did not do after that.”
Jarvi, the attorney general spokesperson, said the Michigan State Police is just one agency that may provide reports to the Attorney General’s office for review of potential charges. The state police can also bring cases to county prosecutors, he said.
“Those officials also have authority to bring charges, and we can’t comment on whether that’s been done,” he said.
Public officials said they wished law enforcement would be more transparent about how they plan to handle the threats and where they should send them for an adequate investigation.
“The threats are serious. . .and these people need to be charged,” Pohutsky said.
Threats of a violence have piled up in recent months because society is “quicker to anger,” said Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard.
The department takes each reported threat seriously, Bouchard said, but there are legal limits to what constitutes a credible threat.
When Pohutsky received an email from a constituent which said “all representatives should be shot,” she said it was not referred for investigation because the constituent didn’t single anyone out.
It’s at law enforcement officers and the courts’ discretion to determine if the threat is targeted, and they might ask themselves “Is it really reasonable that you are going to kill all Michigan’s representatives?” said Schneider, the U.S. attorney.
But the threats, veiled or unveiled, have ramifications for the public officials they threaten, Pohutsky said.
“Clearly, these people are being encouraged by the fact that there have been no consequences for any of the things that they have done,” she said.
The onus is not just on law enforcement to quell the threats, said Canton Township Clerk Michael Siegrist, who has received an uptick in harassing messages from voters since the U.S. Capitol siege last week.
Republicans who spread false information about the election must admit the allegations are untrue to help ease the divisive climate, he said.
Otherwise, he said, “I just don't know how you unpickle this cucumber.”
“If they can't secure the nation's Capitol, what can they do for us?” Siegrist said.
Bridge reporter Jonathan Oosting contributed to this report.
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