A very common call for service that I take as a police officer is a person claiming another person has threatened them. So what should you do if someone has threatened you? First of all, I’ll lay down some definitions so we’re all on the same page. What people call a “threat” rarely meets the definition of a “threat” according to criminal law.
In my State a threat is defined as:
A person commits a threat of violence if:
(a) the person threatens to commit any offense involving bodily injury, death, or substantial property damage, and acts with intent to place a person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury, substantial bodily injury, or death; or
(b) the person makes a threat, accompanied by a show of immediate force or violence, to do bodily injury to another.
Words alone, especially when communicated verbally, do not constitute a criminal threat in most cases. In my State, if a threat [to commit a violent felony] is written or recorded, then it’s considered Harassment:
(1) A person is guilty of harassment if, with intent to frighten or harass another, he communicates a written or recorded threat to commit any violent felony.
What most people consider a “threat” rarely meets either of these definitions. The dictionary defines “threat” as “a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment, injury, etc., in retaliation for, or conditionally upon, some action or course”. When I’m speaking to people who have called the police to file a threat report, it’s typically something more along the lines of this more commonly used and understood definition. From here on out when I use the word “threat”, I’ll be using the common definition rather than the legal one.
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THREATS
- Most threats are conditional. The person communicating the threat is attempting to influence your behavior. It’s a manipulation tactic.
- People speaking threats are often operating from a position of weakness.
- Most threats are never acted upon.
Truly dangerous people rarely speak threats. They just act. Truly dangerous people will not give you fair warning they are going to harm you. They’ll just do it. Gavin De Becker explains threats in The Gift of Fear this way, “Threatening words are dispatched like soldiers under strict orders: Cause anxiety that cannot be ignored. Surprisingly, their deployment isn’t entirely bad news. It’s bad, of course, that someone threatens violence, but the threat means that at least for now, he has considered violence and decided against doing it. The threat means that at least for now (and usually forever), he favors words that alarm over actions that harm.” As I said before, the most dangerous people do not announce their desire to hurt you ahead of time. That would be like the quarterback in a football game pointing to one of the defensive players and saying, “We’re going to run the ball right at you” right before snapping the ball and running the play. How successful would that play be if they told the defense ahead of time what they were going to do? If people are really going to do you harm, they typically don’t tell you ahead of time. They just do it. Gavin De Becker wrote, “…. Direct threats are not a reliable pre-incident indicator for assassination in America, as demonstrated by the fact that not one successful public-figure attacker in the history of the media age directly threatened his victim first.”
Threats are delivered from a position of weakness and desperation. They reveal the speaker has failed to alter events through other means. Threats are an emotional response. Threats received from a stranger are typically nothing more than words of desperation and should simply be ignored. Threats from a person you have a relationship with, should be considered more serious, but even then are mostly nothing more than words intent on alarming or manipulating you. From The Gift of Fear, “Another tip: Threats that are end-game moves—those introduced late in a controversy—are more serious than those used early. That’s because those used early likely represent an immediate emotional response as opposed to a decision to use violence.” If you’ve been in a lengthy, toxic, relationship with someone and their earlier attempts to manipulate you have failed are more likely to act on a threat when they feel they have completely run out of options. I’ve seen this when men kill their ex-wives or girlfriends after a long, drawn out relationship and they feel they have no other options remaining.
Another danger is when a person believes they are in a relationship with you that doesn’t really exist… outside of their own mind. Because you’re not aware of this “relationship” you’re in with them, you don’t take them seriously when the threats begin to arrive. These should be taken more seriously even though you don’t believe you’re in a relationship with this person, he believes differently.
And this leads me to the most important aspect of threats… context. What is the context of the threat and you’re relationship to that person?
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU’RE THREATENED
First of all, don’t panic. How you respond to the threat determines its power. Even if the threat is serious and genuine, how you respond either gives or takes power from the speaker of the threat. If turn pale, show fear, alter your schedule, etc, your adversary wins. Gavin De Becker explains the value of threats this way, “Thus, it is the listener and not the speaker who decides how powerful a threat will be. If the listener turns pale, starts shaking, and begs for forgiveness, he has turned the threat or intimidation into gold. Conversely, if he seems unaffected, it is tin. Even in cases in which threats are determined to be serious (and thus call for interventions or extensive precautions), we advise clients never to show the threatener a high appraisal of his words, never to show fear.”
Don’t call the police just to “have it documented”. By the way, I and every other cop I know, hate it when people call in and want us to “document what happened”. I’m not your secretary. If you want it documented, do it yourself. My documentation isn’t any better than yours. If you know the person who threatened you, but you don’t want anything to happen to them, then don’t involve the police. Some people are worried it will escalate the situation if police speak to the person who communicated the threat. Don’t call us and tell us about the threat but then say you don’t want us to talk to the guy who threatened you. If that’s how you feel, then don’t bother us. Tell you story to someone else. .. I’m on a rant… I digress…
I recommend calling the police, explaining the situation and asking them what, if anything, can be done. If they threats were received on a device, screen shot the threats and show them to police. If it’s a voicemail, save it. Don’t delete the evidence. The police likely won’t be able to do much about it because it often doesn’t rise to the level of criminal threats or harassment. In my State, we do have an Electronic Communication Harassment law which prohibits people from contacting you through any electronic means once you’ve told them to stop contacting you. This is often what I advise people to do in these cases. Send a text, email, chat or whatever to the person causing the problem and tell them to never contact you again and that you have reported their behavior to the police. I then document this in a case report and tell them if they receive another communication from that person to call and report it so we can charge them. This ends it about 98% of the time.
If it does rise to the legal definition, then the police should take action on it. This rarely means the person will be arrested and taken to jail. Threats are typically Misdemeanor Crimes (lower level) and the suspect will be given a citation and required to appear in court.