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August 03, 2023

Annual 2023: New findings on U.S. extremism to be released

One of the emerging trends in domestic terrorism and far right extremism is threats to public officials, says Peter Simi, who has spent more than 25 years studying this field.

That shift led the professor at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., to his latest research project, “tracking and analyzing federal charges involving threats to election/elected, education, health care and law enforcement officials between 2013 and 2022,” he says.

Simi and Professor Sarah Redfield of New Hampshire School of Law will present his findings so far at the program, “Extending Justice 3: They Don’t Look Like Extremists or Terrorists,” Friday, Aug. 4, at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting in Denver. Then Judge Bernice Donald of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals (retired), will moderate a discussion on the effect of those threats with public officials, including U.S. District Judge John Tunheim of the District of Minnesota; Anthony Holloway, the chief of police in St. Petersburg, Florida; and a state prosecutor.

Simi’s research, which is being supported by the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center at the University of Nebraska (the newest center of excellence funded the Department of Homeland Security), just finished its first year.

His team of primarily undergraduate researchers looked at “every available federal district webpage for press releases with cases that fit our parameters,” then requested relevant court documents for each case. Using the court documents, they coded “more than 50 variables related to the victim (s), offender (s) and the incident to better understand patterns and trends,” Simi says.

“Even if threats to public officials are never executed their consequences are devastating in terms of intimidation and coercion,” he says. “Threats to public officials should be viewed as threats to democracy and nothing less.

In a larger sense, “our more central and important social institutions have quite simply lost the confidence of large segments of society,” Simi continues. “Strong institutions that citizens trust and believe in are the cornerstone of democracy. When those guardrails weaken, we become increasingly susceptible to authoritarianism.”

He fears that “unless we double down and reinvest in a more vibrant democracy, we are going to lose it.”

The program, sponsored by the ABA Criminal Justice Section, aims to increase awareness of what defines extremists in the U.S. and how their approach is embedded in our culture and in our psyches. And by focusing on the accumulated data rather than assumptions, we become better prepared to combat their violence.

This is the third ABA program inspired by the book, “Extending Justice: Strategies to Increase Inclusion and Reduce Bias,” co-edited by Donald and Redfield. The first featured a conversation with authors on implicit bias manifestation and interruption in law enforcement, the judiciary and prosecutor and defender offices; and the second featured those authors whose chapters focused on gender equity.