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Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. A new study found that three in four Riverside County elected officials who responded to a survey reported being threatened. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. A new study found that three in four Riverside County elected officials who responded to a survey reported being threatened. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
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Three in four Riverside County elected officials who responded to a survey reported being threatened in the course of their public duties, a new study concludes.

The study by the at the University of San Diego’s found that 66% of elected leaders surveyed in Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties had been threatened or harassed while performing their public duties, with threats leveled at liberals, conservatives and moderates alike.

  • Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside...

    Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. A new study found that three in four Riverside County elected officials who responded to a survey reported being threatened. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside...

    Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside...

    Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

  • Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside...

    Visitors to the Riverside County Administrative Center in downtown Riverside go through metal detectors as they enter the building Friday, July 5, 2024. A new study found that three in four Riverside County elected officials who responded to a survey reported being threatened. (Photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

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Harassment and threats have consequences not only for public officials and their families, but for democracy as a whole, according to speakers at a Wednesday, June 26, UC Riverside event that discussed the study’s findings.

“It’s a new day for elected officials.  Riverside Mayor said at the event. “It’s not like it was even three years ago.”

“It’s scary to be an elected official right now.”

Social media “has done a lot to fuel things,” Lock Dawson said. “But also just the demeanor and the attitudes of some of our current elected officials … when you have folks who are in charge of setting laws and enforcing laws at the highest level sanctioning and saying it’s OK to break the law, that gives people permission to do all kinds of things.”

Lock Dawson added: “Unless you think I’m just talking about , it’s across the spectrum. I’ve seen it with folks on the opposite side of the aisle.”

Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said she's dealt with two stalkers while in public service. (File photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, ɫ̳/SCNG)
Riverside Mayor Patricia Lock Dawson said she’s dealt with two stalkers since becoming mayor in 2020. (File photo by Anjali Sharif-Paul, ɫ̳/SCNG)

The mayor, who said she’s dealt with two stalkers as a public servant, warned that if people are intimidated into not running for public office or seeking reelection, “I think we are going to be left with folks that are doing this for all the wrong reasons.”

Ron Loveridge, a UCR political scientist , recalled the in which a gunman opened fire in a conference room. A bullet struck the back of Loveridge’s neck in the shooting, which wounded seven people.

Former Riverside City Councilmember Chuck Beaty, left, and former Mayor Ron Loveridge are seen in 2023 in the doorway of the Riverside City Hall conference room in which they were shot 25 years ago. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Former Riverside City Councilmember Chuck Beaty, left, and former Mayor Ron Loveridge are seen in 2023 in the doorway of the Riverside City Hall conference room in which they were shot 25 years ago. (File photo by Will Lester, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

“As mayor, I sought and valued civility in the legislative process,” Loveridge said. “Political threats are really the antithesis of civility.”

Political threats “will complicate the recruitment of candidates for local office,” he added.

Unlike federal lawmakers, who may have homes in several communities, “It’s not often terribly difficult to find out where (local leaders) live, where their offices are, who their spouses are and who their children are,” said Palm Springs Police Sgt. Kyle Stjerne, who has dealt with threats against councilmembers in that city.

Nationwide, threats against local leaders rose in 2022 and 2023, with local electeds in California having the highest number of unique incidents of threats and harassment of any U.S. state, according to the Bridging Divides Initiative at Princeton University.

That timeframe followed the height of the pandemic, in which elected officials — including Riverside County supervisors — dealt with large crowds of people angry with mask mandates and other pandemic-era restrictions. Public meetings nationwide became heated, with officials often berated, threatened and followed to their cars.

The study sent surveys to 785 elected officials in Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties, from school board members to mayor, county supervisors and sheriffs. Researchers also interviewed about 20% of survey respondents, reviewed media articles and analyzed 460,000 tweets from 2016 to 2022.

Sixty-six percent of all officials who responded to the survey, including 69% of women and 65% of men, reported being threatened or harassed, the study found. In Riverside County, the number was 76%.

Forty-five percent of threatened Riverside County officials told researchers they considered leaving office because of the threats. Across the three counties surveyed, “48% of nonwhites and 38% of whites have considered leaving public service as a result of threats and harassment, with implications for diverse and inclusive political representation,” the study read.

Seventy-five percent of Riverside County electeds and 67% of elected leaders in Riverside, San Diego and Imperial counties said they considered threats and harassment “to be a routine part of public service,” the study found.

Threats aren’t limited to liberals, moderates or conservatives. Majorities of all three groups reported threats, and while men and women were equally likely to report being harassed, “more than three times as many women report receiving threats and harassment at least weekly,” according to the study.

Of the electeds in all three counties surveyed who reported threats and harassment, 63% said they worried for their personal safety, 25% said they are less likely to speak about hot-button issues in public and 6% said they changed their votes as a result of threatening or harassing behavior, the study found.

Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries, who was elected to his office in 2012 after serving as a Republican lawmaker in Sacramento, said several times a year, “we are contacted or visited by extremely upset individuals who make various types of threats.”

Riverside County Supervisor Kevin Jeffries said several times a year, “we are contacted or visited by extremely upset individuals who make various types of threats.” (File photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

“Occasionally a specific individual will become obsessive with dozens of phone calls each day, often with threats,” Jeffries said via email. “Our office has had to turn over a few cases to the Sheriff’s Department for contact and assessment of the threat. One person threatened to set himself on fire at the county building.”

Several years ago, “an extremely upset woman intentionally drove her car into our office building exterior wall” at Jeffries’ Lakeland Village field office, he said. “The damage was notable but not significant.”

After the 2015 San Bernardino terror attack that killed 14, Riverside County installed a metal detector through which the public must pass in order to enter the downtown County Administrative Center. Several sheriff’s deputies are typically on hand at Board of Supervisors meetings.

Eastvale City Councilmember , who was the youngest woman of color to become mayor of a California city, said while she’s “fortunate to have never been threatened … it’s almost one of those things where it’s expected, unfortunately as bad as that sounds.”

Harassment on social media “is so common,” Yow said. “It’s easier to hide behind a screen and harass someone you don’t really know.”

While elected officials should be held “to a certain standard … some people — the method of how they’re doing that, it’s a little bit questionable sometimes,” Yow added.

“And the frustrating part about being an elected official is that whether it’s receiving threats or being harassed … it’s almost in a sense normalized,” she said. “For elected officials, we don’t have the HR person to go to … There’s no set protocol or procedure in place to address all these things, whether it’s threats or harassment or what not.”

Ultimately, no law will end threats and harassment, Lock Dawson said.

“We can pass policies. We can put people in jail. We can do this. We can do that,” the mayor said. “What it really comes down to, I think, is having neighbor-to-neighbor, people-to-people contact (and) seeing elected officials out there in the community, being among our residents, but also in having our residents come together.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct an error. Ron Loveridge served as Riverside’s mayor for 20 years. 

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