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The country is on edge after a mob incited by the president overtook the U.S. Capitol last week, resulting in the death of five people and a sense that the security of American democracy is at risk.
The Washington Post reported that right-wing groups are planning additional armed marches leading up to the Jan. 20 inauguration, according to Alethea Group, which analyzes and combats disinformation online. The report by Alethea Group’ showed plans for activity in all 50 state capitals as well as some other cities, including Pittsburgh.
In a Jan. 12 statement, the FBI’s Pittsburgh Field Office said the agency is aware of reports of possible “protests in our area,” and that FBI agents interviewed a “Pittsburgh-based individual” cited in the report. “At this time, we are not aware of any related threats in our region which includes Western Pennsylvania and the State of West Virginia,” the FBI said in the statement.
The national FBI director, according to the New York Times, told a number of police chiefs from around the country in a call Wednesday to be on high alert, even without verified threats, and warned of attacks on government buildings and businesses.
The Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol caught authorities off guard despite being planned on the open internet. Could a fresh round of dangerous conflicts take authorities by surprise?
A new challenge for local authorities
Jillian Snider, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York Police Department officer, said last week’s riot in Washington will cause law enforcement across the country to take more precautions than normal.
“I don’t think anyone would have predicted something as vile as what had occurred last week,” Snider said. “I think agencies are definitely going to step it up in terms of making sure they have more than sufficient personnel on scene to try and counteract anything that might be planned.”
The Pittsburgh Department of Public Safety did not answer questions about preparation, and FBI Pittsburgh did not answer questions related to threats beyond its Jan. 12 statement.
In a vote of confidence for the city’s ability to handle any situations that may arise, he referenced the G20 summit held in the city in 2009 and “a number of peaceful protests and walks this summer with very little incidents.”
The G20 and summer 2020 protests, though, were not without controversy, including allegations of inappropriate force used against demonstrators.
John Sicilia, the president of the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, said he is not aware of any credible threats in the region. He said federal, state and city law enforcement have been “very transparent” with sharing any intelligence that has come up.
“However, we’re always preparing for that worst-case scenario,” said Sicilia, who is also the chief of police of the Northern Regional Police Department, which serves several municipalities north of Pittsburgh. “Our reaction is always based on the action and how much people escalate a situation. If it’s peaceful protest, we certainly allow that to happen as long as it’s done legally. But once property is being destroyed or people are harmed, we obviously have to escalate our tactics and prevent people from being injured.”
The violent riot that took place in Washington last week was unlike any protest seen in Western Pennsylvania in 2020, or any time in memory. Sicilia said cooperation between agencies will be crucial if similar situations arise in the region.
“I don’t think agencies independently could ever be prepared for something like that,” Sicilia said. “But we have a very unique dynamic in the region here in Western Pennsylvania where law enforcement partners from across the region work together … I think collectively as a group we would have a very good handle on a situation like that.
“But for any one agency, a situation like we saw in Washington, D.C., would be overwhelming. But like I said, as a group, I feel that we would be able to keep the residents of this region safe and the property of this region from being destroyed.”