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Community Investment, Not Criminalization

Summary: By making social problems the concern of law enforcement, the Biden administration’s approach to threats of far-right violence rehashes discredited strategies of the war on terror.

Published: June 17, 2021

Over the past five years, from Char­lottes­ville to Pitt­s­burgh to El Paso, attacks by people who reject our multiracial demo­cracy have shaken our coun­try to its core and sparked conver­sa­tion about how best to address far-right viol­ence. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion, which stoked the flames of white suprem­acy, ended with the ransack­ing of the U.S. Capitol as Congress was certi­fy­ing Joe Biden’s Elect­oral College victory. foot­note1_ea1iyuy 1 Dan Merica, “Trump Says Both Sides to Blame Amid Char­lottes­ville Back­lash,” CNN, August 16, 2017,­ics/trump-char­lottes­ville-delay/index.html; Sarah McCam­mon, “From Debate Stage, Trump Declines to Denounce White Suprem­acy,” NPR, Septem­ber 30, 2020,­acy; and Vera Bergen­gruen and Lissandra Villa, “Pres­id­ent Trump Was Asked to Condemn White Suprem­acists. He Gave Them ‘a Huge Win’ Instead,” Time, Septem­ber 30, 2020,­acists-debate/. Some among the crowd of the pres­id­ent’s loyal­ists displayed racist imagery ranging from Auschwitz sweat­shirts to Confed­er­ate flags. foot­note2_gd4jlz3 2 Kristin Romey, “Decod­ing the Hate Symbols Seen at the Capitol Insur­rec­tion,” National Geographic, Janu­ary 12, 2021, https://www.nation­al­geo­­ing-hate-symbols-seen-at-capitol-insur­rec­tion. Viol­ent white suprem­acy, of course, has played an import­ant role in shap­ing the Amer­ican project, from slavery to the emer­gence of the Ku Klux Klan through the current day. foot­note3_0fn830m 3 See, e.g., Carl Skutsch, “The History of White Suprem­acy in Amer­ica,” Rolling Stone, August 19, 2017, https://www.rolling­­ics/polit­ics-features/the-history-of-white-suprem­acy-in-amer­ica-205171/.

The Biden admin­is­tra­tion has now iden­ti­fied far-right viol­ence as a rising threat and has sought to focus more resources and atten­tion on address­ing it. foot­note4_80ucbc2 4 Adam Gold­man, “New Report Warns of Rising Threat of Domestic Terror­ism,” New York Time, March 17, 2021,­ics/domestic-terror­ism.html (citing Office of the Director of National Intel­li­gence, “Domestic Viol­ent Extrem­ism Poses Heightened Threat in 2021,” March 1, 2021,­ment­tools/biden-admin­is­tra­tion-domestic-extrem­ist-report-march-2021/ab0bbd­f0a8034aea/full.pdf); Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Nicole Hong, “Biden Steps Up Federal Efforts to Combat Domestic Extrem­ism,” New York Times, April 4, 2021,­ics/domestic-terror­ism-biden.html; Alejandro N. Mayor­kas, “How My DHS Will Combat Domestic Extrem­ism,” Wash­ing­ton Post, Febru­ary 25, 2021, https://www.wash­ing­ton­­ions/2021/02/25/major­kas-dhs-domestic-extrem­ism/; and see, e.g., Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, “DHS Announces Fund­ing Oppor­tun­ity for $1.87 Billion in Prepared­ness Grants,” Febru­ary 25, 2021,­ing-oppor­tun­ity-187-billion-prepared­ness-grants. But the admin­is­tra­tion is adapt­ing strategies developed as part of the war on terror that are inef­fect­ive and likely to harm the very communit­ies of color that are so often the target of far-right viol­ence. The viol­ence preven­tion programs run by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity (DHS) faced many prob­lems, ranging from a lack of evid­ence of effect­ive­ness to a histor­ical near-exclus­ive focus on Muslims to the gener­a­tion of new aven­ues for surveil­lance to concer­ted oppos­i­tion from targeted communit­ies. However, instead of taking a hard look at these issues, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion has featured such programs in its National Strategy for Coun­ter­ing Domestic Terror­ism, released on June 15, 2021. foot­note5_56zcw1x 5 National Secur­ity Coun­cil, “Pillar Two: Prevent Domestic Terror­ism Recruit­ment and Mobil­iz­a­tion to Viol­ence,” National Strategy for Coun­ter­ing Domestic Terror­ism, June 15, 2021, https://www.white­­ter­ing-Domestic-Terror­ism.pdf; and White House, “Fact Sheet: National Strategy for Coun­ter­ing Domestic Terror­ism,” June 15, 2021, https://www.white­­ing-room/state­ments-releases/2021/06/15/fact-sheet-national-strategy-for-coun­ter­ing-domestic-terror­ism/. Just over a month before this strategy was announced, DHS’s viol­ence preven­tion activ­it­ies were rebranded and organ­ized under the Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships (CP3), which was rolled out on May 11, 2021. foot­note6_odg1ymz 6 Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, “DHS Creates New Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships and Addi­tional Efforts to Compre­hens­ively Combat Domestic Viol­ent Extrem­ism,” press release, May 11, 2021,­tion-programs-and-part­ner­ships-and-addi­tional-efforts; and “Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships,” Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, last accessed May 17, 2021, (Note that while the Center for Preven­tion Programs and Part­ner­ships, or CP3, is a center, “CP3” is used in this report to describe a strategy in addi­tion to the recently estab­lished center.) CP3 is not the only federal initi­at­ive that propag­ates risk factor/indic­ator frame­works to assess whether a person is at risk of commit­ting a viol­ent act. This report focuses on CP3, but its obser­va­tions also apply to other initi­at­ives rest­ing on the same basic assump­tions. For example, CP3’s activ­it­ies comple­ment the DOJ’s “Disrup­tion and Early Engage­ment” program (DEEP), which engages psycho­lo­gists, community groups, and others with the goal of “assess[ing] the degree of threat posed by partic­u­lar subjects and develop[ing] options to mitig­ate the threat and divert or disrupt mobil­iz­a­tion to viol­ence.” See Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, “U.S. Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity FY 2021 Budget Request,” last accessed May 11, 2021, 2–3,­a­tions/20_0210_dhs-tvtp-omb-fact-sheet.pdf. See also Depart­ment of Justice, “2021 Budget Summary,” last accessed May 11, 2021, 6,­load; and Letter from Shalanda Young to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Pres­id­ent’s FY 2022 Discre­tion­ary Fund­ing Request, April 9, 2021, 16, https://www.white­­tion­ary-Request.pdf (“These invest­ments comple­ment those that the discre­tion­ary request includes for the Depart­ment of Justice.”). In FY 2021, DOJ reques­ted fund­ing for DEEP as part of a $639 million alloc­a­tion for “Combatting Mass Viol­ence,” includ­ing $310 million in grant programs to “enhance state and local efforts to mitig­ate the impacts of acts of mass viol­ence.” See Depart­ment of Justice, “2021 Budget Summary,” 4. Of the state, local, and tribal programs, $150 million is alloc­ated for the STOP School Viol­ence Program, which includes fund­ing for threat assess­ments. See “Student, Teach­ers, and Officers Prevent­ing (STOP) School Viol­ence Program,” Bureau of Justice Assist­ance, Depart­ment of Justice Office of Initi­at­ive Programs, Decem­ber 9, 2019,­ence-program/over­view. The use of the term subject, for example, and descrip­tions in the docu­ments discuss­ing DEEP suggest that DOJ’s program focuses on people whom federal law enforce­ment already views as poten­tial threats or is consid­er­ing prosec­ut­ing. See Depart­ment of Justice, Justice Manual § 9–151.151 (2018) (“A ‘sub­ject’ of an invest­ig­a­tion is a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s invest­ig­a­tion.”); Depart­ment of Justice, “2021 Budget Summary,” 6 (“in addi­tion to tradi­tional prosec­u­tion options”); Memo from Attor­ney General to All United States Attor­neys, All Heads of Depart­ment Compon­ents, and All Law Enforce­ment Agen­cies, “Imple­ment­a­tion of National Disrup­tion and Early Engage­ment Programs to Counter the Threat of Mass Shoot­ings,” Octo­ber 16, 2019, 2, https://www.docu­­ments/6509496-Attor­ney-General-Memo-Imple­ment­a­tion-of-National.html; and Jeffrey A. Rosen, “Deputy Attor­ney General Jeffrey A. Rosen Deliv­ers Remarks at the Cutting Edge Tactics for Threat Assess­ment, Mitig­a­tion, Disrup­tion & Early Engage­ment Symposium (Deep Seminar),” Depart­ment of Justice, remarks prepared for deliv­ery, Decem­ber 3, 2019,­ney-general-jeffrey-rosen-deliv­ers-remarks-cutting-edge-tactics-threat. As the RAND study laying the ground­work for TVTP notes, citing DEEP as an example, “given concerns raised in inter­views across the cities we visited regard­ing community trust of the FBI and similar agen­cies with enforce­ment missions, it is unlikely that these agen­cies could ever become the found­a­tion for substan­tial terror­ism preven­tion efforts for indi­vidu­als who have not commit­ted crimes.” Brian A. Jack­son et al., Prac­tical Terror­ism Preven­tion: Reex­amin­ing U.S. National Approaches to Address­ing the Threat of Ideo­lo­gic­ally Motiv­ated Viol­ence, RAND Corpor­a­tion, 2019, 257n14, DOJ has also consist­ently funded $2–3 million of CVE-related research through its National Insti­tute of Justice over a period of years. Jack­son et al., Prac­tical Terror­ism Preven­tion, 205–8. While DEEP and TVTP share flawed common premises, TVTP is expli­citly inten­ded to “fill[ ] a gap where law enforce­ment or intel­li­gence cannot oper­ate because of consti­tu­tion­ally based civil rights and liber­ties.” Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, Office for Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion, Fiscal Year 2016 Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism Grant Program: Prelim­in­ary Report on Program­matic Perform­ance, March 26, 2020, 31,­a­tions/20_0326_tvtp_prelim­in­ary-report-program­matic-perform­ance-fy16-cve-grants_1.pdf. Members of Congress have also intro­duced a number of viol­ence preven­tion bills that would dramat­ic­ally expand DHS-led federal involve­ment in threat assess­ments, a major compon­ent of TVTP initi­at­ives. One major bill in the 116th Congress was the Threat Assess­ment, Preven­tion, and Safety (TAPS) Act of 2019, which would convene federal, state, local, and civil soci­ety actors to form a national task force that would develop a threat assess­ment–­based strategy to prevent targeted viol­ence and provide $25 million a year to imple­ment it. Threat Assess­ment, Preven­tion, and Safety Act of 2019, H.R. 838, S. 265, 116th Cong. (1st Sess. 2019),

This is not a fulfil­ment of the prom­ise Pres­id­ent Biden made when he was running for office that he would end the Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion (TVTP) program. Instead, CP3 puts a new name on that old approach, which the federal govern­ment is now doub­ling down on. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion still plans to distrib­ute $20 million in TVTP grants in fiscal year 2021 to fund preven­tion efforts, twice the amount the Trump admin­is­tra­tion distrib­uted the prior year. foot­note7_mt25gsd 7 See Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, Fiscal Year 2020 Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion (TVTP) Program Notice of Fund­ing Oppor­tun­ity, March 30, 2020,­tun­ity.html?oppId=325876; and Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, Fiscal Year 2021 Targeted Viol­ence and Terror­ism Preven­tion (TVTP) Grant Program Notice of Fund­ing Oppor­tun­ity, March 24, 2021,­tun­ity.html?oppId=332324. It has also made avail­able $77 million in fiscal year 2021 under the Home­land Secur­ity Grant Program to state and local govern­ments for similar activ­it­ies to “combat[ ] domestic viol­ent extrem­ism.” foot­note8_76m2ecg 8 Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, Fiscal Year 2021 Home­land Secur­ity Grant Program Notice of Fund­ing Oppor­tun­ity, Febru­ary 19, 2021, 7,­ments/FEMA_FY2021-HSGP-NOFO_02–19–21.pdf; Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, “Secret­ary Mayor­kas Announces Domestic Viol­ent Extrem­ism Review at DHS,” press release, April 26, 2021,­ary-mayor­kas-announces-domestic-viol­ent-extrem­ism-review-dhs; and Govern­ment Account­ab­il­ity Office, Report to Congres­sional Requesters, Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism: DHS Needs to Improve Grants Manage­ment and Data Collec­tion, Febru­ary 2021, 41, Further, the Biden admin­is­tra­tion’s budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2022 asked for contin­ued fund­ing for these grant programs at roughly the same levels, within a total of $131 million for other vaguely described “diverse, innov­at­ive, and community-driven meth­ods to prevent domestic terror­ism.” foot­note9_8p1ebln 9 Letter from Shalanda Young to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy on the Pres­id­ent’s FY 2022 Discre­tion­ary Fund­ing Request, April 9, 2021, 16, https://www.white­­tion­ary-Request.pdf.

While prevent­ing viol­ence is an import­ant goal, the real­ity is that much of CP3’s preven­tion activ­it­ies rest on the empir­ic­ally disproven premise that there are iden­ti­fi­able mark­ers that can predict who is going to commit an act of viol­ence, render­ing it of no demon­strable util­ity in accom­plish­ing its stated purpose. CP3 programs grow out of the discred­ited Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism (CVE) programs of the Obama era, which failed to prove their value and instead painted their targets — Amer­ican Muslims — as a community of poten­tial terror­ists. By broad­en­ing its focus from Muslims to a wider spec­trum of polit­ical viol­ence and the inde­term­in­ate category of targeted viol­ence, DHS may avoid charges of anti-Muslim bias. However, doing so simply expands the reach of the inef­fect­ive and discrim­in­at­ory CVE model. The mark­ers of poten­tial viol­ence that DHS promotes are so vague as to open the door to bias, seem­ingly ignor­ing the real­ity of struc­tural racism that the admin­is­tra­tion has repeatedly vowed to address. These mark­ers are also often far removed from the actual threat of viol­ence. Address­ing poverty and discrim­in­a­tion, for example, should clearly be prior­it­ies for our govern­ment, but not under the guise of secur­ity.

At a time when juris­dic­tions around the coun­try are consid­er­ing how to reduce law enforce­ment involve­ment in mental health and social issues, CP3 preven­tion activ­it­ies take the oppos­ite approach. They create struc­tures to bring a broad range of concerns about mental health and socioeco­nomic condi­tions to the atten­tion of law enforce­ment as indic­at­ors of crimin­al­ity without normal safe­guards. Indeed, DHS has expli­citly stated that a major purpose of these programs is to “fill[ ] a gap where law enforce­ment or intel­li­gence cannot oper­ate because of consti­tu­tion­ally based civil rights and liber­ties.” foot­note10_cxdhidt 10 Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, Fiscal Year 2016 Coun­ter­ing Viol­ent Extrem­ism Grant Program: Prelim­in­ary Report on Program­matic Perform­ance, 32.

This report proceeds in five parts. It first outlines how CP3’s activ­it­ies build on CVE’s flawed premises that people take a defin­able path to viol­ence, that there are iden­ti­fi­able risk factors that make them more disposed to going down this path, and that there are pre-attack indic­at­ors that can accur­ately identify them before they act. In part II, the report explains that expand­ing the scope of the CVE viol­ence preven­tion approach does not address these critiques of CVE. DHS’s own sources make clear that there are import­ant differ­ences between terror­ism and targeted viol­ence, which itself sweeps in a diverse range of conduct. In part III, the report analyzes the empir­ical research under­ly­ing the risk factors and indic­at­ors the depart­ment promotes for identi­fy­ing poten­tially viol­ent actors. It shows that the research does not support the use of these mark­ers in preven­tion programs. Part IV iden­ti­fies the harms of CP3’s programs, which will be felt dispar­ately by histor­ic­ally margin­al­ized communit­ies. It demon­strates that CP3’s blend­ing of public safety and social service provi­sions under­mines both goals; further, it shows that CP3 activ­it­ies are likely to chill consti­tu­tion­ally protec­ted expres­sion and stig­mat­ize those flagged as threats. The report recom­mends in part V that the social prob­lems CP3 often iden­ti­fies as threats to national secur­ity — poor economic oppor­tun­ity or the need for mental health treat­ment, for example — be divorced from a secur­ity frame­work and untethered from law enforce­ment. Instead, efforts to relieve these prob­lems should be managed by insti­tu­tions with the relev­ant expert­ise and outlook, with alloc­a­tion of resources to address them based on community needs rather than a perceived risk of terror­ism.

End Notes