The arrests of the four African-American Detroiters follow Thursday’s slayings of five Dallas officers by a black sniper during a protest march. The man blamed for the killings and injuries to seven others reportedly told police he wanted to kill as many white cops as possible.
Law enforcement agencies across the United States are on guard for threats after officers have been shot in at least three cities since Thursday’s attack.
Long-simmering tensions were inflamed last week when video captured officer-involved killings of African-American men in New Orleans and Minnesota. As a crowd gathered in downtown Dallas to protest, police say military veteran Micah Xavier Johnson, 25, of Mesquite, Texas opened fire.
With the Dallas ambush of police officers and calls for more cop killings, Craig said he’s taking seriously the social media threats that his staff uncovered.
Craig said he plans to contact federal, state and local prosecutors to determine what charges may be brought against the suspects.
“Social media is new territory, and while it’s been established that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment, we’re talking about people specifically saying on Facebook they want to kill white police officers,” said Craig, who said the Police Department’s counter-terrorism unit saw the alleged threats while monitoring social media.
“If someone threatens to kill the president, that person would be arrested and prosecuted. How is it any different when someone threatens to kill white cops?”
But one legal expert said it’s murky determining where free speech ends and illegal behavior begins.
“Certainly, posting that kind of thing on social media is a bad thought,” said professor Larry Dubin of the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “But having a bad thought isn’t necessarily a crime. There are a lot of issues at play here, and I think a lot would depend on what exactly was said.”
One of the Detroit men reportedly posted on Facebook that Johnson was a “hero” for killing the Dallas officers, and added: “He inspired me to do the exact same thing.”
Police said another man posted: “It’s time to wage war and shoot the police first.” The man told people to contact him to organize the effort to shoot officers.
The fourth suspect posted pictures and videos of officers being shot on his Facebook wall and wrote: “This needs to happen more often,” according to police.
Recent threats to police departments across the country ranged from generic promises of violence to specific video threats. In Dallas, officers swarmed Police Department headquarters Saturday after a report of a suspicious person in a garage before finally issuing an all-clear.
A Louisiana man was accused of posting a video online showing him in his vehicle behind a police car, saying he wanted to shoot and kill an officer. Police say Kemonte Gilmore flashed a handgun in the video and talked about the killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana.
In Wisconsin, a man posted calls on social media for black men to gun down white officers, and a woman in Illinois threatened in an online video to shoot and kill any officer who pulled her over, police said.
Legal experts still are grappling with the relatively recent issue of internet threats.
“I know this is a new issue, but I want these people charged with crimes,” Craig said of the four men arrested. “I’ve directed my officers to prepare warrants for these four individuals, and we’ll see which venue is the best to pursue charges.”
Craig said two of the suspects were released and warrants will be submitted. The other two men remain jailed because of outstanding warrants, Craig said.
Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Maria Miller said in an email Sunday: “Since we have not received warrant requests for anyone, it is difficult to determine which entity is most appropriate to review the allegations.”
Representatives for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office were unavailable for comment Sunday.
The Dallas shooting happened during a rally protesting the killings of Sterling and Castile, both of whom were black. After video of the incidents surfaced, tensions have flared between police and protesters, who accuse officers of targeting black men.
Police in other cities have been shot since the Dallas sniper shootings. A man in Tennessee opened fire Thursday, killing a woman and grazing a police officer. Police said the man may have been angry about recent officer-related killings involving African-Americans.
Officers were wounded by gunfire Friday in ambushes in Missouri and Georgia, although as of Sunday, police had not determined the motives behind the shootings.
Craig said it should be a crime to make threats to kill police officers. “Especially now, in this current climate,” he said. “I don’t think that’s protected speech.
“In California, if you threaten to kill someone, the state statute says that’s a terrorist threat,” Craig said. “When I was in L.A., I personally arrested people for that. But with social media threats, it’s a new issue that needs to be clarified. So let’s clarify it now.”
Subjective or objective threats?
Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, declined to comment without seeing the alleged threats.
Courts have ruled that “true threats” are not protected under the First Amendment. But determining when lawful speech crosses the line and becomes unlawful is difficult, and the definition of a “true threat” is open to interpretation.
Craig said in the current environment, anyone who says they want to kill police officers is making a threat.
“When we arrested these guys, each one of them said, ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t mean it the way it sounded.’ One of the threats was more vague, along the lines of ‘I wish more cops would be killed.’ Maybe you could argue that isn’t far enough.
“But the others were specific: ‘Kill police officers.’ If that’s not a threat, what is?”