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After Capitol Riot, Local Authorities Feel Responsibility To Track Potential Threats

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

More than 300 people have now been charged in the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Many of them openly expressed extreme political views before heading to Washington. So now in different parts of the country, local law enforcement are asking whether they should be keeping track of potentially dangerous people. Colorado Public Radio's Allison Sherry reports.

ALLISON SHERRY, BYLINE: They posted plans to go to D.C. on Facebook. They were members of local paramilitary groups and talked to friends and family and even the media about a stolen election that they intended to go fight against in person.

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ROBERT GIESWEIN: Pelosi, the Clintons, all of them - every single one of them - Biden, Kamahla (ph) - they have completely destroyed our country.

SHERRY: This is Robert Gieswein in an interview ahead of January 6 by ITV. He is one of the five Coloradans so far charged in storming the U.S. Capitol. But even though Gieswein talked openly about his conspiracy theories, what happened on January 6 surprised local law enforcement officers.

JASON MIKESELL: I don't know a whole lot about them, if you want to know the truth, other than they show up and they do some different events for the U.S. flag.

SHERRY: That is Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell, whose jurisdiction covers Woodland Park, where Gieswein lives.

MIKESELL: That doesn't mean that they're doing anything wrong, being a part of a group.

SHERRY: Federal officials rely on local law enforcement to be their eyes and ears in communities. They hold regular briefings with local agencies and share intelligence. But FBI Director Chris Wray recently told Congress they don't have good enough sources in communities.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: So anytime there's an attack, you can be darn tootin' (laughter) that we are focused very, very hard on how can we get better resources, better information so that we can make sure that something like what happened on January 6 never happens again.

SHERRY: Law enforcement agencies have to make decisions about how they scatter their resources. And it's clear now that times have changed. They are now being asked to shoulder a whole new responsibility. In conservative western Colorado, Mesa County Undersheriff Todd Rowell takes a notably personal approach.

TODD ROWELL: Early on, we tried to contact that individual and sit down with them to see if it's someone that's just making statements in a polarized environment. Or are they taking substantial steps to commit criminal activity?

SHERRY: Rowell says he has deputies mostly monitoring social media sites where people share plans that could mean trouble. Even though his community has more than 100,000 people, Undersheriff Rowell treats it like a small town.

ROWELL: We know the people that live on those fringes. I'd be shocked if somebody gave us a call to tell us about somebody and one of our 250 employees didn't know who that person was.

SHERRY: The feds are clearly grappling with how organized and dangerous those groups really are. Prosecutors said this week they consider some dangerous enough to possibly charge with sedition. A Colorado federal judge recently compared the Three Percenters, an anti-government group, to a criminal street gang. One local sheriff tries to make a sharp distinction, though.

TONY SPURLOCK: You don't blame those organizations for the behavior of a few. You blame the few.

SHERRY: That's suburban Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who says he's seen bad actors hide inside what he calls political organizations and then mask illegal activity with free speech.

SPURLOCK: Black Lives Matter, clearly a political organization; Proud Boys, clearly a political organization - and that's where law enforcement has to monitor very delicately because both of those groups will come after you about interfering in their First Amendment rights.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible).

SHERRY: As the federal government continues its largest domestic terrorism probe, it has become clear that in order to be successful in thwarting another attack, they're going to need local law enforcement to play a key role.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Sherry in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "INTROSPECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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