Updated: 6 days ago
A year of data on threats, harassment, and attacks against local officials
“How do we respond or not respond? What can you let go? And what choices do we have?”
In partnership with the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University and key supporters, CivicPulse has been tracking the rate at which local elected leaders are experiencing insults, harassment, threats, or physical attacks for the last twelve months. Starting in August 2022, CivicPulse conducted four nationally representative surveys of local officials, totaling well over 1,300 respondents.
The findings are sobering: not withstanding a modest dip in the rates of these incidents during the election period last year in 2022, threats, harassment, and attacks remain pervasive.
Threats and harassment of local officials are at a consistently high baseline.
Threats and harassment are even more common for racial and ethnic minorities, and for women.
Worries about threats, harassment, and attacks are higher than the reported frequency of these events, indicating that the events themselves are contributing to an atmosphere of fear in politics.
As described in more detail in this brief, CivicPulse’s survey is part of an ongoing effort to better understand and support local officials facing these challenges – ultimately settingan initial measure that can help detect new changes or spikes from this already concerning baseline in the years to come. This data is essential to not only monitor trends in threats and harassment over time but also to inform locally-driven solutions for local officials, leading into the 2024 election cycle.
Levels of insult, harassment, threats, and attacks remained largely consistent over a one-year period, indicating persistent high baselines of hostile behavior towards local officials. Depending on the time of the year, approximately half of local public officials have consistently reported being insulted verbally, while a third have reported being harassed. About one in five report experiencing threats of physical violence, and between 1-2% have experienced such violence. In follow-up interviews, several respondents told our research team they experienced events where they felt worried not only about their own safety but the safety of their families. When provided opportunities for open-ended responses or interviewed individually, officials expressed a range of experiences. Some officials expressed no direct experience with these incidents, others remarked that “people feel more emboldened now than they did ten years ago” and that they “understand why people are hesitant to run for public office.”
Threats and harassment are even more common for racial and ethnic minorities, and for women. Patterns of threats and harassment also undermine efforts to promote better representation of marginalized groups in local government.Historically, white men with higher education have been much more likely to say that they have sought public office compared to women and people of color; the experience that women and racial or ethnic minorities have while in office may be a contributing factor. Women and racial or ethnic minorities in local elected offices were 5-10% more likely to experience both threats of violence and ongoing harassment while serving as local elected officials over the past year.
Threats and harassment are more pervasive in higher-population areas, but small towns face unique challenges. Another way of looking at the data is by the characteristics of the local community rather than the individual leader. Here, we see that, while these events are pervasive across all communities in the United States, they are most common in higher-population areas.We divided all general-purpose local governments by their population into three equally sized groups. Local officials serving in local governments with the largest communities—with populations over 8,700—were significantly more likely than officials in the other two groups to experience both threats and harassment.
However, local officials receiving threats and harassment in self-described “small towns” face particular challenges, principally feeling safe in their community. In individual interviews, multiple local elected officials described the lengths they go to avoid “being in public” in their community including going to grocery and drug stores in different cities and even states, avoiding social gatherings, and alerting family and friends to their movements about town. Conversely, local officials from “small towns” not receiving threats and harassment consistently held up their community’s emphasis on civility and support. Individuals regularly highlighted the challenges – in both large and small communities – of a heightened climate of hostility towards officials and perceived partisanship of often nonpartisan officials.
Worries about harassment, threats, and attacks outstrip the reported frequency of these events. Even if local elected officials have not been threatened, harassed, or attacked recently they may be afraid that such an event will occur. For example, 34% of local officials we surveyed reported being harassed, yet many more (42%) said they were worried about harassment.
As the severity of the event increases, so does the local official’s worry factor. While 18% of respondents were recently threatened, almost double (30%) were worried about being threatened. Although the proportion of survey respondents who reported a physical attack was close to 1%, a far greater proportion (14%) expressed concern about being attacked in the future.
One attack or threat to a local elected official has an outsized effect on their sense of safety and sends a chilling message to aspiring individuals who might otherwise consider public service. This climate of fear not only limits the pool of potential leaders but also undermines the health of our democracy.
Areas for Future and Ongoing Work
Through the CivicPulse-led surveys and Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) conversations with surveyed elected officials who opted-in for further conversation, several areas of future research emerged.
More quantitative study is needed to understand the partisan nature of threats and harassment, but from qualitative interviews, local officials describe the particular challenges of intra-party hostility. In one-on-one conversations, local elected officials across the political spectrum reported threats and harassment. Self-described conservatives and liberals reported threats and harassment from their own party, which many highlighted as particularly surprising and upsetting. The question of differences in harassment by political party would require additional analysis, specifically controlling for race or ethnicity and gender and regression analysis.
More study is necessary on threats from fellow officials, which is less covered in the framing of these initial surveys. Conversations with local officials reveal the importance of interrogating assumptions about who is harassing elected officials. In several cases, respondents told us that their own colleagues were the source of their fears. One said, “People in my town - I have their support and their respect. I fear the people I sit with on council.” Tensions between officials who disagree with each other in council meetings have led not only to hostile exchanges of words, but outright threats.
The pipeline from local to state office is essential, with forthcoming collaborations focusing on this issue in early 2024. In early 2024, the Brennan Center for Justice will publish a report, including a multimedia storytelling component, on threats, harassment, and hostility faced by candidates and officeholders in state and local government, with a particular focus on the impacts of this behavior on our democracy– from the officeholders themselves to the constituents they represent. The report will examine the particular impacts on historically underrepresented groups including women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Findings from a nationwide survey and 34 long-form interviews will demonstrate the scope of the problem. The Brennan Center will also make policy recommendations to address the gaps that leave our democracy vulnerable.
The Threats and Harassment Dataset (THD) is a first-of-its-kind effort by BDI, in partnership with Anti-Defamation League (ADL), to track threats and harassment against local officials, allowing for the monitoring of the variety of risks that they may face. A better understanding of such trends is the first step in being able to identify strategies and solutions to better support such officials. The dataset will be published in early 2024, followed by regular updates.
Finally, these data highlight the importance of finding solutions to threats and harassment as articulated by the officials themselves. BDI’s “In Their Own Words” report highlights local officials’ perspective that they largely wanted greater support for elected officials, more training in their roles, and frustration over a lack of clarity on “best practices” after experiencing hostile behavior.
In one-on-one conversations, local officials highlighted interactions with other officials outside their communities as particularly positive. These could be formal – organized at the state level across counties and districts – or informal, as support groups for women and people of color. In reality, these groups remain largely ad hoc and do not reach local officials equally across parties or geographies. Many elected officials – across party, geography, race, and gender – highlighted the value of their service, despite the risks. As one official put it: “Has it felt worth it? Absolutely. I don’t like what I have had to give up, but [it’s] motivating to women and girls of color who are not usually in these positions.”
Furthermore, the persistence of threats and harassment across four survey rounds reinforces the importance of community-focused responses to these challenges:
Three percent of local officials said they accessed mediation as a solution. BDI, in response to requests from communities, created a state-by-state directory of de-escalation, bystander intervention, and conflict resolution training in addition to guides for local leaders. Additionally, the National Association of Community Mediation (NAFCM), which represents community mediation centers across the United States, is a resource for local communities to peacefully resolve conflict.
In one-on-one conversations, elected officials reported – with a high degree of satisfaction – interventions from their community to support them. Local officials described instances of communities holding supportive rallies, working together to combat harassers in public space, and putting out messages of support on social media as reinforcing their confidence in their service to their community and a sense of belonging. These instances stand in sharp contrast to local officials who described friends and community members who shied away from public or private displays of support.
Statewide efforts, such as the signed Civility Pledge from nearly 60 towns and cities across Connecticut reinforce the importance of shared commitment to civic norms.
This mixed methods, participatory design of quarterly surveys with one-on-one interviews offers a rapid means to identify new spikes or trends in threats and harassment at a comprehensive and not anecdotal level. Ultimately, CivicPulse and its partners are looking to build a research feedback loop where local officials and researchers support one another in combating threats and harassment.
Despite all these efforts, we are also entering into a heated election period at a time when the country has never been more divided. Fortunately, last year we did not experience the anticipated uptick in these events that many feared would occur during the election period. But last year was not a presidential election year. This ongoing data collection effort will allow us to tease apart the trends as we enter into this period. In doing so, we hope stakeholders will be able to better understand how to mitigate the threats faced by our elected leaders closest to the frontlines.