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Handling Threats: "I'm Going to Kill You!"

Every cop has to deal with scumbags and their idle threats. But what do you do when the danger is real?

October 10, 2011  |  by Kristine Meldrum Denholm - Also by this author

During this onslaught "There was a higher degree of vigilance on the part of the officers. Many calls were handled almost as ambush situations because of the possibility they might be exploited as such," says Lt. Wiseheart of the Hemet Police Department.

And Hemet was not an isolated case.

Det. Dave Haller of the Thurston County (Wash.) Sheriff's Department arrested a suspect and charged him with 28 counts of burglary and stalking of a woman. In prison, the man hatched a plan to kill the detective through a hit man. Funds were

"If this guy would've gotten out on bail-which they don't tell you about-he would've come after me or my family...he had seven or eight plans to take out me and my family. One of them was to burn our house down as we slept," says Haller.

This wasn't the first time Haller had dealt with a personal threat. He served more than 13 years on the LAPD, working in the state prison system "learning the mindset of cons" for three years. He has been with Thurston County 21 years. In Los Angeles, the Diamond Street Gang and 18th Street Gang had contracts against him.

Though many officers refuse to talk about such threats, the news stories about them are plentiful. A sampling of recent articles shows police in Connecticut subdued a woman they were taking into custody after she threatened the arresting officer with a knife. Police in Pennsylvania confronted a man on a domestic call and were told by the suspect he would kill him. Calls in Pittsburgh lured officers back to a housing project where people threatened them. A professor allegedly stalked and made threats against a New Orleans police officer via Facebook.

Types of Threats

Retired ATF agent McEntire advises, "Law enforcement officers must recognize the two different types of individuals who make threats along with understanding why a threat is being

"Is the threat being made to cause a mental reaction from the officer? Or is the threat being delivered because the individual truly intends to move forward with potential violence against that officer?"

When a suspect blurts out threats as the cuffs are slapped on, that's one thing. It's entirely another when an officer puts a guy in prison who's a member of the Nazi Low Riders and soon there's a green light in the prison system to have the officer harmed. Still other threats might be more overt: the Hells Angels staring down an officer in court. While not a spoken threat, the message is there.

"The guys who are arrested are playing a game," explains McEntire. They're issuing family threats to ratchet up the emotion. "They can say anything they want to about your wife, but nothing is really happening to your wife."

One Cleveland patrolman says he's encountered this type of threat often. "[A suspect] was arrested for assault, bit me, then when she was in my car she started making threats. She said she was going to find the biggest [expletive] to [expletive] my wife and hurt my kids, and that she knows [expletive]. I grabbed the tape recorder, let her go off. I just said, 'OK,' and let her keep talking." She pleaded.

"I've had plenty of people threaten me, [saying things like] I know where you guys park your cars." He said he hasn't heard any threats that have made him lose sleep, but knows other officers who have. "What I deal with is some knucklehead talking smack."

He believes "lots of criminals talk and threaten you, but it depends on how hard you work and if you're arresting people. If you're arresting those with lots of drugs and guns, you're dealing with something they have to protect. If you take their drugs, you take their money, and if they're out money, their ass is on the line. They owe someone. Dope dealers might actually follow through on their threats."

Damage and Anguish

Officers must realize, though, all types of threats-even ones with no intention of carry through-will cause stress and fatigue, and this is where mental burnout comes into play.

McEntire consults on threats because of personal experience: He was targeted several times, the first by an outlaw motorcycle gang. "It's one thing to have an individual voice a threat in person to you, but to sit outside in an unmarked car and listen to a conversation intercepted by a body-wire between two people discussing killing you, is totally different," he says.

After hearing that he was the target of a planned hit, the agent spent weeks changing cars and running counter-security measures. "I also made one big mistake. I never told my wife for weeks. I finally broke down in my supervisor's office. I had reached the point of mental exhaustion and was ready for it to end," he says. The gang members were sent to prison; McEntire was relocated.

Later McEntire was targeted by a militia group. "Being an ATF special agent was enough to be hated by the militia movement in the 1990s," he says. "I was targeted not on a personal level but strictly because of my chosen career path overseeing a field office."

The militia videotaped McEntire's home and advertised his address. Since he had already gone through the experience of being threatened, he went through the counter-surveillance measures, but shared his concerns with his wife this time. "I knew there was nothing she could do to prevent any attack, but it was comforting just to talk."

McEntire admits he was on "red alert 24/7" the first time he was threatened, and not sleeping. "If my dog's tail wagged, I scanned the bedroom and listened for an intruder."

Hypervigilance is common among police officers who have been targeted by serious threats, according to Dr. Ellen Kirschman, a Redwood City, Calif.- based public safety psychologist and author of "I Love a Cop: What Police Families Need to Know." She gives this example of hypervigilance: "You may be out buying school clothes for your kids, but you're thinking about the gang in the mall, so you're not fully present because you're scanning the room."

The problem with hypervigilance, says Kirschman, is that it narrows your attention only to safety issues and you tend to ignore your loved ones' other needs. One DEA agent told her, "You have no idea what I'm dealing with. My family's with me, and I'm going to do everything to protect them."

Kirschman, a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) expert, says many cops identify with trauma and carry so much responsibility that their lives are crumbling. "The question is, what do you want on your tombstone? Do you want-as one officer admitted-the kids running the other way when you get home?"

Comments (4)

Displaying 1 - 4 of 4

Morning Eagle @ 10/14/2011 12:03 AM

Good article on a subject that affects most every officer to some degree even though it may not always involve direct threats. Just doing the job every day exposes one to threatening or traumatic situations that can take a toll over the years if one allows it to. Admittedly it is sometimes difficult not allow it to when the type of lying scumbags one continually deals with are considered. Threats in today's world of drugs, huge amounts of illicit money, and illegal firearms cannot simply be ignored.

Alan @ 10/17/2011 6:49 AM

Had a suspects brother call the county clerk who gave him my home address and corrected the spelling he had for my name. Rather than offer to black list officers information the County Clerk has said they are unable to restrict our private information.

Katherine Gotthardt @ 10/28/2011 1:00 PM

WOW. Really puts things in perspective. You always hear about how high stress law enforcement is, but this article is so specific, it reveals something most of us civilians don't consider. Many of these cops are really military figures fighting a war on our soils, but they aren't treated that way, which means they don't get the emotional or resource support they need.

Ahmir @ 12/15/2011 10:36 PM

The County clerk gave out law enforcement information? What! I'd file a complaint Attorney General's office for the state. That is ridiculous, that presents a major risk to those in our profession. That is inappropriate and unacceptable. I'm heated just thinking about if that happened to me. That shows that they don't give a damn about officer safety.

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