But every now and then threats become more than angry words and violence ensues.
In Tucson, Ariz., this reality was seen in devastating tragedy Jan. 8, when U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was targeted and shot during a Congress on Your Corner event. Twelve others were also wounded and six were killed as Giffords prepared to meet with constituents outside a grocery store. Jared Lee Loughner is being held on charges of murder and attempted murder in the case.
The shooting in Arizona has left many local elected officials thinking about their own safety and security.
“When you see these things happen, it’s very concerning,” said Sparks Mayor Geno Martini.
Martini, however, is determined not to dwell on the prospect of meeting violence, whether on the city’s streets or within City Council chambers.
Washoe County Commissioner Bonnie Weber expressed a similar resolve not to let threats and intimidation keep her from the great responsibility she feels to citizens.
She plans to continue holding monthly meet-ups with constituents at community centers and other public places across the county.
“I don’t think we can live in that fear,” Weber said, though she knows just what that fear can look like.
A few years ago, Weber received verbal threats during the public comment portion of a commission meeting and later got a restraining order against the individual who made them.
The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office staffs an armed deputy at all commission meetings and pays particular attention to those agenda items considered most controversial in order to prepare for possible rancor among audience members.
The Sparks Police Department staffs at least one officer for all Sparks City Council meetings, and often times it is Chief Steve Keefer.
Even so, Councilman Ron Schmitt said that without private security detail, elected officials need to be proactive in dealing with threats.
“It is imperative we all watch out for each other,” he said.
Just last week Schmitt said he received a suspicious phone call. The caller’s strange inquiries concerned Schmitt so much that he reported the incident to Sparks police. An investigation into the matter is ongoing.
The steps Schmitt took to alert authorities about potential threats are exactly what Washoe County Sheriff Mike Haley advises officials to do.
“The biggest deterrent (to threats or violence) is communication,” he said.
Haley was informed of U.S. Sen. John Ensign’s visit to the area this week. The sheriff’s office provided two motor units to assist in security transport for the senator.
Haley said the sheriff’s office has established policy to deal with threats and potential acts of violence directed at elected officials.
For example, there is an “active shooter” alert process, which designates specific responsibilities for law enforcement when incidents occur. And there is a workplace violence committee to deal with internal threats and acts of violence within county government. Finally, there is a “rapid alert” system to deal with security breaches at courthouses.
All of these tools can be useful in combating threats on public officials and public institutions. And threats against both are more common than some might believe.
Haley said that a number of threats against officials had been made in the last year and that federal institutions, including some courthouses in the county, had recently received several undisclosed types of threats.
Of course, substantiating whether threats are likely to become actionable is no easy task.
A Nevada law makes it a crime to “intimidate” public officials, but the law’s loose definition makes determining when a line is crossed problematic.
“It’s a difficult area to balance because of free speech rights,” Haley said.
U.S. Congressman Dean Heller, who represents northern Nevada, knows well that a voice of opposition does not inherently equate with a threat.
Heller travels often throughout the state and attends several parades each year. Sometimes, he said, there are people who offer uncomplimentary hand gestures rather than handshakes.
But for the most part, Heller said, people in Nevada’s geographically largest congressional district are friendly and act appropriately when he meets with them.
Heller said he anticipates no change in his patterns as a result of the shooting in Arizona and does not plan to ask for additional security or contact local law enforcement agencies about his travels and appearances.
“I have not felt threatened in my district,” he said.