Capitol Police special agents responsible for vetting threats against members of Congress are inundated, leaving some investigations delayed for months and not enough time to monitor all the people they determine to be potentially dangerous.
An increase in recent years in the number of cases — which include threats and other concerning statements made against members, their families and staff — coincides with several high-profile attacks near the Capitol or at offices and residences.
Chief J. Thomas Manger has called for more funding for the department’s Threat Assessment Section that he described in July as stretched to capacity, and agents in that group described for CQ Roll Call why more staffing is needed.
“There is no possible way to keep up with the caseload,” said one of the agents, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to communicate with the media.
Agents in that section carry an average annual caseload of nearly 500, the chief told lawmakers at a hearing this year, as threats against members have increased about 300 percent over the past seven years.
On a given day, an agent could get assigned five new cases. Some cases typically take between three to six hours to investigate, while others can take substantially more.
“It’s overwhelming, and the quality of the investigation can be lower,” another agent said.
The annual caseload should be closer to 100 per agent to conduct a thorough and comprehensive threat investigation, according to a department official, whose comments were included in an internal 2021 report that has not been made public.
Agents sort through stacks of threats and other concerning statements, which can be handwritten letters, emails, social media posts and voicemails. Supervisors determine the priority level and assign them.
Direct threats are investigated immediately, the agents said, along with the gravest and most pressing threats. But waves of other reports get examined only when agents have time to get to it.
Some agents have cases sitting on the backburner for months. Other less urgent cases are not investigated as thoroughly as agents would like. Agents don’t have time to keep tabs on some subjects after closing a case.
“Are you digging as deep as you can? Sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t,” an agent said. “Sometimes you can’t follow up after closing a case.”
Agents are tasked with finding out who made the threat and determining the level of risk a person poses, as well as monitoring and managing those who are deemed a danger.
“We don’t have the ability to monitor and manage properly,” an agent said.
Capitol Police sort investigations into types. Direction of interest cases involve an unusual expression of interest in any person or property under the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction. And threat cases involve a communication or action that shows clear or implied intent to cause harm.
Direction of interest cases take several hours depending on what facts are uncovered and what legwork is needed.
But when someone explicitly threatens a member with a statement such as, “I’m coming to kill you,” an agent, or agents, would be ordered to drop everything and run it down immediately.
Those investigations require more resources and time and sometimes travel. The process varies, but usually involves coordinating with local authorities and the FBI.
When an agent is done on a higher priority case, they go back to the pile of cases they have left. “If you’re working on one case, you know you have many more,” an agent said.
Cases are closed in various ways, such as a conviction in federal court or a referral to a mental health professional. Law enforcement could visit the house of a teenager who made a concerning post, where the teenager expresses contrition, and their parents take away their access to a particular social media account.
The staffing issue is not new, but the need has become more apparent.
The Capitol Police inspector general, in a 2021 report done as part of an extensive review after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol but not released publicly, flagged how increasing caseloads and staffing were among the greatest challenges for the Threat Assessment Section.
The inspector general recommendations included the hiring of more threat assessment agents, as “more resources are needed to keep up with the demand without sacrificing quality.” At the time, there were 30 threat assessment agents and one investigative analyst in the section.
Now, there are roughly 32 threat assessment agents, according to Jason Bell, the acting assistant chief of police for protective and intelligence operations. Capitol Police headquarters has around 24 agents, regional offices in Tampa, Fla., and San Francisco have two each, and others are posted on task forces with the FBI and Secret Service.
The department works the cases it can but often relies on the FBI and local law enforcement to conduct interviews, welfare checks and mental health evaluations.
Then, if the case warrants it, the FBI, Capitol Police or a local law enforcement agency will present the findings to prosecutors.
“It’s discouraging to have to pass cases off to another agency because the Capitol Police lacks the resources to handle it,” an agent said.
In fiscal 2023, the department requested 10 additional threat assessment agents at a cost of over $536,000 as part of a budget increase, according to an agency budget document that is not public.
The department’s Public Information Office, in response to questions, said the agency did receive money to expand the bureau that houses the Threat Assessment Section but did not detail that funding.
The department recently launched a recruiting campaign to add agents and investigators to protect members, and hired a forensic psychologist for the section, the office said.
For fiscal 2024, the department proposed a “significant increase” for the Threat Assessment Section, the office said without providing specific numbers.
The Threat Assessment Section investigated 7,501 cases in 2022; 9,625 in 2021; 8,613 in 2020; 6,955 in 2019; 5,206 in 2018; and 3,939 in 2017, the office said. That data includes investigations into concerning statements and direct threats. The department bases its caseload calculations on the average number of agents who are actively working cases each year, the office said.
While the agency continues to have a “historically high caseload,” the office said the agents “remain highly trained and dedicated to our mission as they investigate all direct threats and concerning statements.”
Attacks on members, staff and family of lawmakers in recent memory show how quickly something nefarious can happen.
Rep. Angie Craig, D-Minn., was assaulted in the elevator of her D.C. apartment building; Paul Pelosi, the husband of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was attacked by a man wielding a hammer who sought to kidnap the former speaker; a Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., staffer was stabbed in D.C.; and former Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., was attacked as he was campaigning for governor of the Empire State.
In July, at a hearing with the Capitol Police Board, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said: “I am very concerned with this rising level of threats, and I fear we’re going to wake up one day and somebody is going to be killed.”
The threat assessment agents receive information from a wide range of sources including other agencies and lawmaker offices.
Congressional staffers can forward cases to the department through email. Generally, an agent will follow up and let the office know what they found.
One congressional aide said that if a statement is concerning, the office will act out of an abundance of caution and send the message to the threat assessment agents. The office wants the professionals to handle it and seeks to be proactive if the person has any intention to harm the member, the aide said.
Former Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., who was up at bat when a gunman opened fire in 2017 at a Republican practice for the Congressional Baseball Game that gravely wounded Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said the practice in his office was to report “anything that would be a physical threat to me or my family or my staff.”
Davis, who lost his primary in 2022, was the top Republican on the House Administration Committee that oversees the Capitol Police.
“Every time we got a threat it scared not just me, but the hardest part, for every member, is dealing with the fear from their family,” Davis said.
In November 2019, a man called Davis’ Decatur, Ill., office and left a voicemail threatening to shoot the lawmaker’s head off. Davis’ staff reported it to the Capitol Police which traced the call back to the man who made the threat, Randall Tarr, of Rochester, Ill.
The Capitol Police asked the Rochester Police Department to visit Tarr, and he told the officers he made the threatening phone call. The next day, the FBI interviewed him.
Tarr was charged with threatening to kill a federal official. Ultimately, Tarr was given two years probation, which included mental health counseling, and a fine. Davis said he was OK with the penalty and said the consequences had a deterrent effect for threats against him.
“That was very well publicized in my district which I think led to less threats because when somebody who is willing to make a threat sees someone else being held accountable—facing consequences for their threats—they are less likely to do it,” Davis said.
District offices are particularly vulnerable, away from the immediate reach of the Capitol Police and in a range of locations with varying levels of building security. A congressional staffer described the district offices as being on “an island.”
Just this May, a man entered Rep. Gerald E. Connolly’s Fairfax, Va., office with a baseball bat and assaulted two staffers. The Virginia Democrat said his team moved into the space in January and had a security assessment done by the Capitol Police.
The assailant hit one aide eight times on the head with a baseball bat, Connolly said.
“We had glass, we had blood everywhere,” Connolly said. “I mean the carpets were filled with blood. Walls were splattered with blood.”
Since the attack, there have been security improvements to Connolly’s district office—visitors now need to be buzzed in by the staff after they are seen on camera and verified to come in. He also took steps to fortify his personal residence.
But even with those measures, Connolly acknowledges that “given the nature of our work, you cannot eliminate vulnerability.”
The responsibility to protect all members of the House and Senate, hundreds of people scattered all over the country, weighs heavily on the agents charged with protecting them.
“Some person can just walk in, and that’s just over the river,” an agent said of the Connolly attack.