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U.S. police chiefs grapple with new Election Day threat: Armed men at the polls

"I feel like I'm walking on the edge of a razor blade," a Virginia police chief told NBC News.
Second Amendment advocate Justin Hall of Roanoke stands guard with his firearm near the Smyth County Courthouse in Marion, Va., and its nearby Confederate statue on July 3.
Second Amendment advocate Justin Hall of Roanoke stands guard with his firearm near the Smyth County Courthouse in Marion, Va., and its nearby Confederate statue on July 3.Andre Teague / Bristol Herald Courier via AP file

The summer months were unrelenting for John Clair, a police chief in rural Virginia.

Clair’s normally sleepy town of Marion was the site of two Black Lives Matter protests where heavily armed militia members showed up in droves, alongside other counterdemonstrators, and engaged in tense standoffs with protesters.

“People would call me up and ask how I’m doing,” Clair recalled. “And what I’d say is, 'I’m dealing with the most complex leadership challenge of my career in the midst of the most widespread social crisis in 100 years. But other than that, I’m doing OK.'”

Clair is now grappling with a different kind of leadership challenge: Election Day.

He’s spent the past several weeks trying to figure out how to provide security at the polls amid the threat of armed troublemakers without scaring away the kind of voters who might be put off by the sight of uniformed policemen.

“I feel like I’m walking on the edge of a razor blade,” Clair said in an interview.

IMAGE: Virginia cross burning
Lori Haynes, left, argues with a New Panthers member during a Black Lives Matter protest in Marion, Va., on July 3.Earl Neikirk / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

The 2020 election is taking place against a backdrop of extreme partisan rancor and social unrest, placing unprecedented strain on the police chiefs and sheriffs responsible for maintaining order at the polls.

The situation is compounded by the increasing threat of right-wing militia groups and a president who has called for an “army” of poll watchers to monitor contested election areas.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has cast doubt about the integrity of the election and repeatedly refused to say that he’d accept the results. Federal authorities, meanwhile, disrupted an alleged militia plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, and target a second Democratic governor, Ralph Northam of Virginia.

In interviews with NBC News, more than a half dozen law enforcement officials across the country described their preparations for safeguarding the polls and their lingering concerns ahead of Election Day.

“There's not a day that goes by where I’m not up late envisioning what the worst case scenario is to make sure that we are able to prevent it,” said Philadelphia Assistant District Attorney Andrew Wellbrock.

Trump singled out Philadelphia in last month’s presidential debate, urging his supporters to go to the polls and “watch very carefully.”

The district attorney’s office had by then already made plans to beef up its task force dedicated to election security. The unit, which consists of roughly 60 prosecutors and 30 detectives, is now focused in part on combating the threat of voter suppression and protecting polling stations from potential instigators.

Pennsylvania has among the most lenient gun laws in the Northeast. Residents can “open carry” a firearm except in Philadelphia, where a permit is required.

Wellbrock said the authorities are prepared to take swift action against anyone who threatens to menace voters.

“Marching back and forth in front of a polling place with a gun is a pretty easy example of felony election intimidation,” he said. “There is no legitimate lawful purpose to be doing that.”

But the situation is more complicated in places like Michigan.

State law prohibits anyone from carrying a firearm within 100 yards of a polling station. But what if armed men walk up and down a line of voters but stay beyond the 100-yard limit?

“It’s a really tricky line,” said Robert Stevenson, executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Image: Lansing Michigan protest
Members of a "militia" group stand near the doors to the chamber in the Capitol building before a vote on the extension of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's emergency declaration/stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus outbreak, in Lansing, Mich., on April 30.Seth Herald / Reuters

Grand Blanc Township Police Chief Ron Wiles said a 2018 state Supreme Court decision on the issue of guns in schools further complicates the picture for law enforcement. The ruling gave school districts the ability to set their own policies on possessing guns on school grounds, which raises a vexing question for Michigan police officials.

“On Election Day, is it a school or polling station?” Wiles said. “It’s a whole other layer of complexity.”

Michigan’s secretary of state issued a directive Friday that prohibits carrying firearms into any polling station — including at schools — but Wiles said he expects the matter to ultimately be decided by the courts in the coming weeks.

The threat militia groups pose in states like Michigan is no longer theoretical.

Earlier this month, 13 men linked to two militia groups were arrested on federal and state charges in connection with the alleged foiled plot to kidnap Whitmer, Michigan’s governor.

The charges were brought six months after armed protesters, including some militia members, descended on the Michigan state Capitol to protest the coronavirus lockdown.

The toxic political climate, combined with the COVID-19 crisis and the national reckoning over police misconduct, increases the pressure on law enforcement ahead of the election, experts say.

“You’ve had social reckoning and social justice, extremist activity, and that combined with the economic downturn and the pandemic presents a unique combination that is truly unprecedented,” said former Seattle police Chief Carmen Best.

Best said the situation requires a “modulated” response from the nation’s police departments to avoid intimidating voters and still provide adequate security.

To be sure, early voting has gotten underway in numerous states and there have been scant reports of voter intimidation or violence.

But law enforcement officials believe the threats will grow as Election Day nears. Concerns are high even in states with strict gun laws and few, if any, active militia groups.

Major metropolitan police departments are taking steps to prepare for the potential of violent protests before and after the election.

New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea sent an internal memo ordering all uniformed officers and even administrators to be ready to deploy for protest duty starting Oct. 25.

“We should anticipate and prepare for protests growing in size, frequency and intensity leading up to the election and likely into the year 2021,” Shea wrote in the memo, which was obtained by NBC News.

Image: Rally in New York
New York police officers stand watch over a rally in Times Square on June 1 against the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. Mike Segar / Reuters file

The Los Angeles Police Department has informed its officers that regular days off may be adjusted and work schedules rearranged to ensure maximum staffing levels during the week surrounding the election.

“We don’t know what to expect,” a veteran Los Angeles area law enforcement official said. “Things are going to happen, but to what extent and for what duration, nobody knows. We are preparing for the worst.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has set up election-focused command posts in every one of its 56 field offices in an effort to more quickly collect and share intelligence and react to a wide array of potential threats, including cyber intrusions.

Two FBI officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said it’s unlikely the FBI would dispatch agents in response to a complaint about armed men intimidating voters. Federal agents with the FBI and Department of Homeland Security are in large part hindered by laws that leave election oversight in the hands of states, guarding against a federal presence at polling places.

“To be clear, the Department of Homeland Security has limited authorities in this area,” said Chase Jennings, a spokesman for DHS.

Both agencies, however, have intelligence-gathering capabilities that allow them to monitor extremists groups that have discussed violent acts.

Jennings said DHS is “not currently aware of any specific or credible violent threats to polling locations or election-related facilities.”

In anticipation of potential Election Day intimidation efforts, Mary McCord, a former senior Justice Department official now at the Georgetown University Law Center, has advised police and local officials in about a dozen states on the laws prohibiting private militias and paramilitary activity.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a swing city in a key swing state, police Chief Andrew Smith said his department is preparing for a range of Election Day scenarios but plans to maintain the same public posture as usual to avoid putting off voters.

Among the department’s assets is a captain who served in Afghanistan with the Army Reserve and helped protect the polls during country-wide elections.

“He knows tactics and logistics, and he thinks about things we wouldn’t have considered because of his vast experience,” Smith said. “We want to be prepared for anything, but for the voters, we want it to be the typical voter experience.”

In Montana, a state with a long history of militia groups, armed demonstrators have gathered in cities like Helena, Billings and Kalispell to protest Covid-19 measures and monitor anti-police-brutality rallies.

IMAGE: Protest in Montana
Protesters gather outside the Montana State Capitol in Helena on May 20 criticizing Gov. Steve Bullock's response to the Covid-19 pandemic.Thom Bridge / Independent Record via AP file

Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton said the heated political climate has led his office to step up preparations for the prospect of armed agitators showing up at the polls.

State law bars anyone from possessing a firearm within 200 feet of a polling station.

“We have a plan that if someone is within that range, they’ll be approached by an unarmed person first,” Dutton said, likely an election judge. “We won’t be called right away. But if there is a sense of resistance, we’ll get the call.”

In southwest Virginia, Clair, the Marion police chief, is planning to position his officers at all five polling locations in town. The officers, Clair said, will maintain a “highly visible but distanced presence.”

This nuanced approach is a response to the competing pressures facing law enforcement across the country.

On the one hand, there are concerns that an increased police presence at polling places could discourage communities of color from voting, Clair said.

“At the same time, the message is we need adequate law enforcement to give voters confidence they can vote in an unimpeded fashion,” he said. “It just creates this balancing act that I think is some of the most nuanced any of us have ever seen.”

The situation is particularly acute in his little town in Appalachia country. The night after the first Black Lives Matter protest, a burning cross was left on the front lawn of the organizer, Travon Brown, 17.

A local man named James Brown was later arrested on federal charges of lying to federal agents and criminal interference with fair housing based upon the victim’s race. He has not yet entered a plea and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.

The election is taking place more than four months after the summer events in Marion, but they’re still fresh in the mind of the town’s police chief.

“I’ve never seen a political climate like this,” Clair said. “So now as a law enforcement leader, nothing surprises me. Not now.”

“We’re going to be prepared for every contingency we can be,” he added.