While the homophobic letters recently sent to a number of LGBTQ+ leaders in Michigan did not constitute a direct threat, it’s useful to have a working knowledge of what exactly constitutes a threat, what is hate speech, what is a hate crime and what to do if ever faced with those circumstances. Pride Source spoke with Larry Stewart, a supervisory special agent for the FBI’s Detroit location. Stewart is responsible for supervising a squad of investigating special agents whose cases involve a couple of major programs, one of which is civil rights.
When asked about a protest featuring signs with hateful messages, for example, Stewart made clear the distinction between hate speech and a crime.
“As much as it’s morally reprehensible, it’s protected by the First Amendment,” Stewart explained. “So some places require a permit or some type of license to lawfully protest and they’re allowed to do it, [but] we in the FBI can’t oversee those things because they’re constitutionally protected activities. So it wouldn’t be anything for us to comment on or to be involved with or anything like that, it’s just a constitutional right. Unfortunately, that’s just free speech. It’s hate speech; it’s not a hate crime.”
Still, the FBI is interested to know about such incidents in the event that they escalate. In fact, Stewart noted that the FBI did see “a pretty significant rise in hate crimes” from 2019 to 2020. He also stated that hate crimes are a top priority for the FBI, primarily due to the devastating impact they can have on communities and families.
What is a threat?
According to Stewart, the FBI defines a threat as “a serious communication of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence against a particular individual or group of individuals.”
Stewart went on to describe types of threats and what one should do when faced with them.
“A physical threat is an in-person, true threat deemed to place the recipient or others in imminent danger,” Stewart said.
According to the FBI, “imminent” means it’s going to happen, though not necessarily at that moment. If it’s an immediate threat, especially a physical threat, Stewart recommends to always call 911. The other options are to run, hide or fight. If it’s possible to run away, do so. If not, hide. The last choice, to survive the incident, is to fight back.
A verbal threat is “an in-person threat, but it’s not gonna rise to the level of immediate danger,” Stewart said. “Things we would encourage people to do there is note the description of the person who made the threat,” including license plate number or anything else that would help law enforcement track down the person.
For a phoned-in threat, “we encourage people to remain calm,” Stewart said. “Don’t hang up [or] try to solicit information to determine if the threat is specific [or] if it’s realistic, poses an immediate danger to anyone. If it’s possible, while they’re on the phone with the caller, and it’s an immediate threat, get somebody to call 911.”
Noting the caller ID and recording the call if possible are also good practices.
“An electronic threat is also something that’s a true threat, received over email or social media,” Stewart said.
He emphasized the importance of not deleting anything sent and calling 911 if it is an immediate threat virtually. Stewart said that individuals familiar with preserving electronic data should do so; if not, the FBI can help.
The last kind of threat is a written or visual threat, for example, a written letter or graffiti.
“The mail is kind of difficult because it goes through so many hands, so it’s a challenge for us to get fingerprints or DNA off something like that,” Stewart said.
However, documenting the date, time and location it was found are all important steps to take for the recipient. If it’s a note or letter, Stewart advises trying to avoid directly handling it if possible by placing it in a bag for protection. This way, the FBI may be able to gather evidence from it.
What is a hate crime?
Simply put, a hate crime is any kind of “traditional” offense, such as arson or murder, but with the added element of bias.
“We define it as a criminal offense against a person or property, motivated in whole or part by an offender’s bias against race, religion, ethnicity/national origin, disability, gender, gender identity or sexual orientation,” Stewart said.
As he described earlier, a threat is a serious communication of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence against a particular individual or group of individuals. Therefore, it would reach the level of a hate crime if motivated by one of those biases.
“If somebody thinks that they’re a victim of a hate crime, obviously, as I stated, call 911 immediately, but then the FBI would conduct a follow-up investigation,” Stewart said. “One of our special agents here that are on my squad, I would assign somebody to it. They would be gathering evidence; they might ask the victim to sit for an interview.”
An individual might also be asked to testify in front of a grand jury, which is different from a trial jury in that it is a closed process, meaning that no one who is not involved in the investigation would know about it.
However, even with these tips in mind, leave the investigation to the FBI is vital, Stewart stressed.
“I don’t want your readers or anyone from the public to feel like they have to do anything,” Stewart said. “Leave the responsibility to us. Allow us to do our job and we’ll take care of it.”
Again, he said, if there’s immediate danger, call 911.
Also, anyone can call the Detroit FBI office that is routed to the national center that takes in tips. The case will get sent to the Detroit office at which time the victim will be contacted. Mailing evidence to the FBI office in Detroit is also a possibility.
The Detroit FBI Office phone number is 313-965-2323 and it is located at 477 Michigan Ave. For more information on how the FBI investigates hate crimes visit this link.