DETROIT — Michigan law enforcement is on high alert after the FBI revealed an alleged plot by extremist groups to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also involved a “plan to target and kill police.”
“We’re cautious. We’re absolutely more careful,” said First Lt. Mike Shaw of the Michigan State Police. “This is one of the tactics these anti-government, domestic terrorism groups use. Law enforcement is the face of the government. if you’re mad at the government, you’re mad at the police.”
The alleged plot was unveiled last Thursday when the U.S. Department of Justice charged six men with conspiracy to kidnap Whitmer, which authorities said they wanted to carry out before Election Day. On the same day, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel brought charges against seven other men that included supporting terrorism, gang membership, and possession of a firearm in commission of a felony.
Officials said the suspects were attempting to trigger “civil war” with a detailed plan to abduct the governor and attack other elected officials at the Statehouse. Part of the plot included plans to target police.
FBI Special Agent Richard J. Trask II cited the risk to law enforcement officers in a criminal complaint filed last Tuesday in U.S. District Court:
“The militia group had already been brought to the attention of the FBI by a local police department in March 2020 when members of the militia group were attempting to obtain the addresses of local law enforcement officers,” the filing says. “At the time, the FBI interviewed a member of the militia group who was concerned about the group’s plan to target and kill police officers and that person agreed to become a CHS (confidential human source).”
Shaw and others said the police are on high alert as risk continues to evolve beyond traffic stops and sitting in police cars to getting fake calls for service and targeting police when they’re out of uniform.
State Police are constantly evaluating the credibility of threats against troopers and facilities and taking measures to reduce potential for harm, Shaw said.
Michigan State Police are assigned to protect the governor. Whitmer thanked troopers for their commitment to public service after officials made the arrests in the federal case.
The Free Press interviewed current and former law enforcement officers who said the threat to Michigan police by extremist groups from both ends of the political spectrum are taken seriously and reconnaissance is provided to protect public officials, as well as those guarding them, at home and at work.
Police told the Free Press that family members are rarely informed when individual officers are getting protective detail at home because it would be too unsettling to the family.
Bob Stevenson, a retired police chief in Livonia and now executive director of the Michigan Police Chiefs Association, said: “The threat is always there but this raises it to another level of alarm when you start to target the officers when they’re not in their uniform, not on duty, not working. Now they’re tracking you.”
However, police have been good at identifying the threats in real time and neutralizing them, Stevenson said.
“When I was a police officer and working undercover in narcotics, I got notified by the FBI that there was a contract out on me by people I had arrested.”
But the threat presented by anti-government groups is very real and a little bit different because of its scope, its impersonal and may involve people trained in weapons use.
“I’ve never seen any training, where it’s a right extremist group, and they’re not going to target law enforcement,” Stevenson said. “In our training, we view all extremist groups as dangerous. A (2010) case involving the Hutaree militia, they planned to kill police and attack officers at the funerals. We’re not under the illusion that because someone’s politics are left or right that they’re not dangerous.”
Living in a free society comes with freedoms and increased opportunity to do harm, he said.
Javed Ali, a former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Trump administration and now teaching at the University of Michigan in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, said the fact set related to the Whitmer kidnapping case is “brazen.”
“According to the affidavit, they went from being a law-abiding group of gun owners and forming a local militia to beliefs that switched to something more dangerous and sinister,” Ali told the Free Press. “Officer safety is absolutely a consideration. By trying to collect (home) addresses for individual law enforcement, it appears they were trying to prepare ‘targeting packages’ on those officers.’”
Using encrypted communications, weapons training, building explosives and surveilling the governor’s second residence suggests “this was a sophisticated terrorist plot like I would see in my government career on the international side,” Ali said. “This wasn’t a hoax.”
As someone with two decades of experience with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, Ali said, “I reject the notion of anyone suggesting this was a political stunt or wasn’t serious.”
Two of the 13 men charged in the Michigan attack plot served in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Daniel Harris of Lake Orion, one of the six men facing federal kidnapping charges, was a rifleman, serving from 2014 until last year, according to his military file, the AP reported. He attained the rank of corporal E-4 in 2019 and his final duty assignment was at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, according to the AP
Joseph Morrison, 26, of Munith is one of seven men charged under Michigan’s anti-terrorism law for allegedly planning to storm the Capitol and ignite a “civil war.”
Morrison was a lance corporal and served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 2015 until Thursday, the day he was arraigned on state charges, AP reported. His last assignment was with the 4th Marine Logistics Group in Battle Creek.
Ex-FBI Agent Andy Arena, who worked all over the country before finishing his career in Detroit, has had protective detail on his house because of personal threats. He said people can’t fathom the conspiracy theories involved with these types of groups.
“These people see ghosts everywhere in the shadows. And they go to social media sites that support their theories and drive their anger. Mistrust in law enforcement is a big part of that anger and mistrust.”
He cited a previous case involving a self-described militia in Michigan and said, “They believed FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) was a group run by the United Nations and they were going to put everyone in concentration camps — old auto plants would be the concentration camps. How can any rational person believe this? Yet they stoke it in one another.”
While police officers, state troopers and federal agents may be targeted, sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies are less often the focus of anger from anti-government groups because a sheriff is elected by voters while others law enforcement officials are appointed.
In Michigan, Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf protested publicly against Whitmer’s stay-home orders as the coronavirus spiked, standing on a stage beside at least one defendant in the case, William Null, 38, of Shelbyville.
Immediately after law enforcement announced the arrests, Leaf generated “extreme concern” among his law enforcement peers after he went on TV and made remarks perceived to diminish the merit of the federal case and possibly justify actions on the part of the accused.
Leaf told Fox 17 in Grand Rapids on Thursday, “It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that. Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested. So are they trying to arrest or was it a kidnap attempt? Because you can still in Michigan, if it’s a felony, make a felony arrest.”
Then he cited a state statute. The video went viral.
The action outraged a number of sheriffs statewide.
“I don’t know how anybody with any time in law enforcement who could try to justify the plot these men are accused of,” Matt Saxton, former sheriff of Calhoun County and now executive director of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association, told the Free Press.
“I’ve been contacted by sheriffs in the state concerned about the response of one sheriff. The Michigan Sheriffs’ Association does not in any way, shape or form support that sheriff’s views or comments. It’s, quite frankly, disheartening a sheriff would respond that way to this incident.
“All people are innocent until proven guilty. But it greatly concerns me that an individual sheriff would believe that anything about this incident could be misconstrued as legal action by those arrested.”
He added, “There’s no way a sheriff should be able to explain the actions of those that are alleged to have attempted this crime as being legal in any way, shape or form.”
The concern among many sheriffs is that Leaf is making comments that reflect badly on 82 other sheriffs in Michigan, Saxton said.
State Attorney General Dana Nessel wanted to leave no doubt on the controversial TV segment. She retweeted it on Friday and wrote, “As Michigan’s top law enforcement official, let me make this abundantly clear — Persons who are not sworn, licensed members of a law enforcement agency cannot and should not ‘arrest’ government officials with whom they have disagreements. These comments are dangerous.”
Leaf, a Republican from Hastings, is running for re-election on Nov. 3 unopposed. He has been sheriff of that southwestern Michigan county since 2004, according to WWMT in Kalamazoo.
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