As hate crimes and extremism remain at historic levels in Colorado and across the country, the region’s top federal prosecutor said law enforcement has the tools to prevent domestic terrorism — but it’s a fine line to walk when people are espousing hateful speech online.
Speaking at a panel Thursday night at the University of Denver titled “Confronting Hate & Violent Extremism in the U.S,” Jason Dunn, the U.S. attorney for Colorado, said domestic terrorism has in recent years become the top priority for the Department of Justice. As the primary threats have shifted from foreign to American soil, the tools used to identify and stop the extremists also have changed, Dunn said.
“It’s tough,” Dunn said. “It’s a fine line. We will often engage with someone online to see if it’s just online speech or if there’s an actual threat.”
Dunn’s comments come three months after federal authorities thwarted a plot by a Pueblo man to blow up a historic synagogue in the southern Colorado city. FBI agents found the 27-year-old man spewing hateful rhetoric online, and undercover agents ultimately caught him before he was able to carry out his plan. But unlike combatting foreign terrorists, the First Amendment prevents law enforcement from acting on online speech, Dunn said.
As law enforcement adapts to homegrown extremism, a new program in Colorado is helping identify the root causes and counsel individuals before they get to the breaking point.
The Colorado Resilience Collaborative, based at the University of Denver, launched in October 2017, seeking to understand what might make someone receptive to recruitment to an extremist organization. The collaborative conducts workshops and research and provides therapeutic services throughout the state.
The program is part of the Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to help local communities use existing programs and frameworks to battle extremism.
“The biggest success story is here in Denver,” Elizabeth Neumann, assistant secretary for threat prevention and security policy for the Department of Homeland Security, said at Thursday’s panel discussion.
Part of that goal is better understanding the people who might get radicalized.
Christian Picciolini was a former white supremacist who has now dedicated his life to getting people like him out of extremist organizations. These people, he said Thursday, are those who have hit potholes in life: trauma, abuse, poverty or joblessness.
“All those potholes brought people to the fringes,” he said. “They’re searching for identity, community and purpose, something everyone wants.”
Colorado has not been immune to the rising extremism taking place nationwide.
A 2019 report from the Anti-Defamation League found the Centennial State had the third-highest number of white supremacist propaganda distributions, and the Southern Poverty Law Center tracks 22 active hate groups in the state.
Meanwhile, anti-Semitic incidents are at near-historic highs. Law enforcement in November and the ADL in 2018 counted more than three-dozen incidents ranging from harassment and threats to vandalism around Colorado.