Death threats, dried pig fetus among concerns Ann Arbor officials reported to police

ANN ARBOR, MI — Facing criticisms from constituents is part of the job of being an elected official, but in Ann Arbor some argue it’s reached a disturbing level.

Some City Council members report feeling personally harassed on social media and elsewhere, and in some cases threatened, prompting some to file police reports.

Council members have shared those concerns at recent meetings and in interviews, acknowledging they’ve turned to police, one reporting alleged death threats.

In a particularly bizarre case, a council member reported someone placing a dried pig fetus outside his business. It’s unclear if it was related to his work on council.

The Ann Arbor News/MLive filed a Freedom of Information Act request for city records documenting the reported concerns.

The city responded with 133 pages, including police reports filed by council members in the past year, numerous email exchanges with the police chief about perceived threats, and screenshots of social media posts.

It got to the point recently where Police Chief Michael Cox sent an email to council with specific instructions.

“If any council member receives what you believe to be a significant threat via email, please feel free to report it to the Ann Arbor PD,” he wrote in a Jan. 20 email. “If you feel the threat is imminent, immediately dial 9-1-1.”

The chief provided additional instructions for reaching out to police supervisors.

“They will be able to talk to you about your safety and can help determine an appropriate course of action,” he wrote.

There have been no charges or arrests related to any alleged threats to council members in the past year, Cox said.

In multiple cases, police logged council members’ complaints of alleged threats as miscellaneous non-criminal incidents.

The Ann Arbor News/MLive found no evidence of threats of violence in the records provided by the city, with the exception of one email in which someone said they’d “slap” two council members and “they’re dead already.”

The chief’s note in January came after Council Member Jeff Hayner, D-1st Ward, shared concerns about “public threats” in an email to Mayor Christopher Taylor.

Hayner expressed concerns about a public speaker who called him fascist during council’s Jan. 19 virtual meeting.

The speaker also criticized Hayner for putting an addition on his home without a permit.

“Now you can no longer say with a straight face that you have never heard a threat made against a council member in the public arena,” Hayner told the mayor, adding the speaker “clearly threatened me in tonight’s council comments” and made previous threats in other forums, including social media.

Ann Arbor council discusses free speech rights, then hears parade of F-bombs

Hayner accused the mayor of fostering “extreme divisiveness” and a dangerous work environment.

“Again, I urge you to speak publicly and unambiguously to condemn this violent rhetoric,” Hayner wrote.

The mayor interpreted things differently.

“I have again listened to the referenced public comment and do not understand anything the speaker said to constitute a threat,” Taylor replied. “Rather than threaten you with harm, I believe that the only reasonable interpretation of the speaker’s comment to be that he used a well-known quotation regarding subconscious authoritarian tendencies as the launching point to criticize you and others for the fascistic — in his view — manner in which you perform your role(s) as council member(s).”

Since an actual threat would be a crime, Taylor said he referred Hayner’s concerns to the police chief, regardless of the merit.

In police reports and emails to the chief, Hayner shared numerous concerns about other perceived threats.

‘A veiled threat of violence’

The mayor and his allies who account for the majority on council haven’t filed any police reports or lodged concerns about threats in writing to the police chief. Only the four who account for the political minority have, records show.

Taylor said he has received some nasty emails, but none he considered threatening.

Council Member Kathy Griswold, D-2nd Ward, shared some of her concerns in a December email to the chief.

“I filed a police report last July regarding the death threats I received on my phone,” she wrote. “Most were voicemails received when my phone was in ‘Do not disturb mode’ after midnight. Your staff were very helpful.”

Griswold said she didn’t file a complaint about hundreds of hacking attempts on her home Wi-Fi network, requiring her to install extra firewall protection.

Council Member Ali Ramlawi, D-5th Ward, said he appreciated the chief’s response to concerns about officials’ safety. He told the chief in December he received over two dozen emails from one resident over the last two years.

“Almost all of them have a veiled threat of violence embedded in them,” he wrote. “It concerns me and I would like to have these interactions documented so that if there is (an) actual violence event, there has been a record leading up to the event.”

The resident Ramlawi was concerned about emailed Council Member Elizabeth Nelson, D-4th Ward, complaining after a meeting, “That was pathetic tonight. You want to keep playing, I’d give a very public slap to Ramlawi & Hayner. They’re dead already.” Nelson relayed the email to the chief.

“I’m sorry to hear that individuals in the area may be abusing their First Amendment rights or at worst engaging in unlawful behavior,” the chief wrote to council members. “Hopefully, we can assist in answering questions you may have regarding the standard needed by AAPD to pursue criminal charges or other options available to address the problem.”

Nelson told the chief the resident who made the “they’re dead already” remark is “somewhat disturbed,” made similar hostile statements before and has an obsession with her.

“He sends me messages that are increasingly vicious as well as delusional re: an imagined relationship with me,” she told the chief. “Many of his messages are sent at late hours, which has made me wonder if he was intoxicated.”

The emails feel threatening, Nelson said, adding she knows Ramlawi received similar “creepy” messages.

She inquired whether there was someone with mental health training who could review the emails and determine if they’re moving in a dangerous direction.

“I do not have experience with stalking, but that is what this feels like,” she wrote.

The person Nelson and Ramlawi expressed concerns about said he was just offering “commentary.”

“I make it absolutely clear that they are heading down wrong paths and will be defeated,” he wrote in an email, acknowledging, “I give them hell.”

In a reply to one of Nelson’s concerns, Taylor explained why he “liked” a person’s social media post that some found objectionable, referring to “NIMBYs.” Taylor said that was an accident while scrolling through and he’s not in the habit of “fomenting toxic social media dustups and aggressions.”

As for suggestions by some colleagues that people attacking them are doing the mayor’s bidding, Taylor denies any involvement. Every city official has a right to be free from intimidation, he said.

“It is profoundly irrational and borderline delusional to think that I have anything to do with any perceived or actual aggression,” he said. “No review of my public and frankly private statements could lead to any other conclusion.”

Nelson said she wanted to create a record of the worst emails she’s gotten “in case someone actually acted.”

“Clearly people are free to be angry and express that,” she wrote in an email, adding the problem is when leaders seem to see that vitriol as a political advantage and remain silent.

Council Member Linh Song, D-2nd Ward, said she hasn’t received any threats since joining council, but it worries her that others might feel threatened.

“I hope the AAPD and the city’s IT department are sufficiently protecting council members,” she said.

A litany of concerns

In an email to the police chief, colleagues and others, Hayner reported a litany of concerns last July.

He alleged people were “casing” his house by slowly driving by it, parking outside with their lights shining into his windows, leaving flashlights and other items on the ground outside his windows at night, letting air out of his tires, making threats and posting images of his home and family with suggestions of violence or action on social media, throwing bottles from moving vehicles at his house, calling him and hanging up, attempting to steal his identity, creating fake social media accounts using his name, harassing his friends and family on social media and making false reports against him.

Those who have done or plan on doing those things can expect their “unlawful and threatening behaviors will be reported to the police,” Hayner wrote.

“Let me make this perfectly clear,” he added. “If anyone threatens me or threatens my family with any form of harassment or violence, including on-line bullying or harassment, I will take every action necessary to protect myself and my family. That’s a promise.”

Hayner expressed concerns about his family’s safety in another email to the police chief in June, saying he had become the target of online threats from someone in another state.

He was particularly concerned the person shared the viral “Who killed Hannibal?” meme, with the person being shot labeled “Jeff Hayner’s political career” and the person doing the shooting labeled “CM Jeff Hayner.”

The same person “lined up people to verbally abuse us” at a meeting as “part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate council members and our families,” Hayner told the chief.

Hayner also told the chief a social media post by a city resident included phone numbers and addresses for him and another council member with the message “light ‘em up,” which he assumed meant “harass us via phone” and is also “slang for arson.” A screenshot of what appears to be the post in question is attached in the city records but does contain that phrase, but instead, “Let your reps know how you feel.”

Hayner told the chief the same resident sent harassing and threatening messages to multiple council members and came to council “and yelled at us in person.”

“There seems to be a real effort to stir up unfounded hatred against a few of us and our families, as part of a political dirty tricks campaign,” he told the chief.

Hayner filed a formal police report about the “harassing communications,” which the department logged as a miscellaneous non-criminal complaint.

The police report mentions negative Facebook and Twitter posts Hayner was worried would lead to attacks against his family.

He told police the door hinges on his screen doors looked misshaped and he was unsure if someone tampered with them, the report states, noting police advised him to get security cameras and document unwanted contacts.

‘You’re gonna die’

Griswold filed a police report in May about feeling harassed in social media posts calling her racist.

“Griswold has also been receiving dozens of emails that are aggressive and filled with profanity,” the police report states. “She states that there have been no direct threats made at this time, however, she would like the incident documented in case things escalate.”

Two months later, Griswold filed another police report, saying she received threatening calls and texts following an Ann Arbor Observer article that discussed how she worked to remove references to types of apartment developments in the city’s carbon-neutrality plan.

Griswold believed the callers were contractors worried about losing business, the police report states.

She told police in July she had received over 30 voicemails, including some insinuating she was racist for defending police officers who patted down a young Black boy before giving him a ride home from West Park.

Griswold played two voicemails for the police department and “it seemed like the callers were attempting to get a reaction out of her” with remarks like she “looks very racist,” the report states.

The department logged it as a miscellaneous non-criminal complaint. The report includes no mention of alleged death threats Griswold said she reported.

She has no evidence of the death threats because they were things people said to her on the phone and she hung up without recording them, she said, adding they included remarks like “die, b—h,” “you’re gonna die” and “just wait till we get you.”

Police wanted Griswold to make a recording of voicemails she received, but she didn’t do that because she didn’t want to get anyone arrested, she said.

“They may have some mental health issues or at least are stressed out by the pandemic and they’re being encouraged by people at a higher level who have a strategic goal of making sure the four council members who are not aligned with the mayor decide not to run again,” she said, calling it “extremely stressful” and chalking it up as “dirty politics.”

The dried pig fetus

Ramlawi, who owns the Jerusalem Garden restaurant downtown, filed a police report last April when he found what appeared to be a dried pig fetus on top of a camel statue outside the front door of his business. It was reported as a potentially anti-Islamic hate crime since Ramlawi is Muslim, though the case was closed with no arrest.

Placed along with the apparent fetus was a pamphlet from an evangelical “trucker’s ministry” group from Mississippi, police photos show. Under an image of a semi-truck, the front read, “How to know 100% for sure, without a doubt, that you’ll go to heaven.” Inside, it quoted Bible verses and urged accepting Jesus Christ as lord and savior.

It was disturbing, Ramlawi said, adding he thinks it was a random act by somebody passing through town.

“I think it was a Trumpian type of hate crime,” he said, noting Muslims don’t eat pork and he thinks that may have been the motivation for the pig fetus.

Or if the person assumed his restaurant was Jewish, it could have been intended as anti-Semitic, he said.

“A lot of people don’t know if we’re Jewish or Palestinian,” said Ramlawi, who is of Palestinian descent.

While he’s not too worried about that incident now, Ramlawi said he is concerned about the attacks some council members face from certain members of the public.

“It’s a very hostile environment. I’m not far from being targeted. I’m just being grazed with the targeting,” he said, lamenting how far civil discourse has devolved in the internet age.

“It’s a dangerous environment,” he said, indicating his fiancee is worried. “Just because I haven’t been targeted yet doesn’t mean I won’t be soon, because it’s been normalized.”

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