VIOLENT EXTREMISMRising Threats to Public Officials: A Review of 10 Years of Federal Data

By Pete Simi, Gina Ligon, Seamus Hughes, Natalie Standridge

Published 6 June 2024

A review of federal charges for the past decade highlights that the number of threats to public officials is growing. While 2013-2016 had an average of 38 federal charges per year, that number sharply increased to an average of 62 charges per year between 2017-2022. Across the time series, ideologically motivated threats, on average, accounted for almost half of the cases, and the portion steadily increased year over year. A preliminary review of cases from 2023 and 2024 shows that the number of federal prosecutions is on pace to hit new record highs. The rising threat level may produce significant consequences for the U.S. democratic system of governance.

A California man left a death threat on the voicemail of an Arizona election official. An Indiana man promised to murder any U.S. government official who supports Israel. A Virginia man told a Veterans Affairs employee that he “understood why Timothy McVeigh did what he did.” A Washington State man left a voicemail with the U.S. Capitol Police that he wanted to “hunt down Joe Biden.”1 And these were just a few of the examples of the more than 30 individuals federally charged with threatening a public official since the beginning of this year alone.2

A substantial number of observers note the growing polarization in the United States.3 Rising polarization coincides with an increase in observed threats to public officials. This article is based on an ongoing study designed to examine the nature and prevalence of communicated threats to public officials in the United States between 2013 and 2022. A central goal of the present effort is to identify key characteristics related to incident, offender, and case outcome variables to better understand the trends in these threats during the past decade, which public sectors are most impacted, and what types of responses might be most appropriate.

According to these data collection efforts, threats against public officials have steadily risen during the last decade. Indeed, in the last six years, the number of individuals who have been arrested at the federal level for making threats has nearly doubled from the previous four years. A close look at the federal data collected shows that this trend is driven, in part, by an increase in ideologically motivated threats that are overwhelmingly of the anti-government and identity-based variety. In short, these actors threaten violence against public officials as part of communicating their grievance regarding political, social, or religious issues.

The article begins by providing some context on the threat landscape. The next section provides a brief methodology to explain how the underlying data for the project was collected and analyzed. The findings section provides a descriptive analysis of the frequency of threats between 2013 and 2022, and reports some key characteristics related to the incidents, perpetrator(s), and case outcomes. The authors conclude by summarizing the findings and discussing implications.