National Task Force On Violence Against Health Care Providers

Report on Federal Efforts to Prevent and Prosecute Clinic Violence 1998-2000

In November 1998, in response to the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian and other attacks on reproductive health care providers, Attorney General Janet Reno established the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers. As discussed in more detail below, the Task Force coordinates the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for these attacks, maintains a database of information related to clinic violence, identifies ways to make at-risk clinics more secure, and enhances training of law enforcement officers on issues related to clinic violence.

The establishment of the Task Force is the most recent in a series of federal efforts to combat and prevent clinic violence. In May 1994, after escalating levels of violence against reproductive health care clinics across the country, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. This Act established federal criminal penalties and civil remedies for "certain violent, threatening, obstructive and destructive conduct that is intended to injure, intimidate or interfere with persons seeking to obtain or provide reproductive health care services."

A number of other federal laws also apply to violent acts directed against health care providers. For example, 18 U.S.C. ァ844(i) establishes a federal felony criminal offense where an individual "maliciously damages or destroys, or attempts to damage or destroy, by means of fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle, or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce." Offenses under section 844(i) are most frequently charged in instances of violence involving arsons or bombings of reproductive health care clinics. Similarly, the use of a firearm in the commission of a felony offense against a reproductive health care provider might warrant prosecution under18 U.S.C. ァ924(c). In addition, 18 U.S.C. ァ1951 (more commonly referred to as the "Hobbs Act") criminalizes conduct that obstructs, delays or affects commerce by means of robbery or extortion. Attempts to coerce a reproductive health care provider to limit or halt operations may constitute a violation of this statute. The penalties for these various offenses are substantial.

In August 1994, the Attorney General established the Task Force on Violence Against Abortion Providers (often referred to as "VAAPCON"). VAAPCON was charged with determining whether there was a nationwide conspiracy to commit acts of violence against reproductive health care providers. While the evidence gathered did not support a definitive conclusion as to the existence of a nationwide conspiracy, VAAPCON played an important role in the early implementation of FACE and also reinforced to law enforcement officials the availability of other federal criminal statutes to address clinic violence. Indeed, VAAPCON's coordinated activity resulted in a great increase in the flow of information concerning risks faced by providers and in the number of criminal and civil cases successfully prosecuted by the Department, and its work generated much information that is relevant to current investigations.

In January 1995, President Clinton directed each of the 93 United States Attorneys to establish a local task force to coordinate law enforcement efforts relating to clinic violence. These working groups have remained in place since that time, and include representatives from state and local law enforcement as well as representatives from the FBI, ATF, and US Marshals Service. They are designed to maximize the level of coordination and communication among law enforcement officials in the field. They are also intended to improve communications between providers and law enforcement to assess and address threats and other security risks more effectively.

As VAAPCON was phased out in 1996, the responsibility for coordinating the law enforcement response to clinic violence was transferred to the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. Cases were worked according to normal procedures in the Criminal and Special Litigation Sections in cooperation with United States Attorney's offices and investigative agencies. To help ensure effective communication, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights established a Working Group on Abortion Violence with participants from the Criminal and Special Litigation Sections, the FBI, ATF, the USMS and the Executive Office for the United States Attorneys. The Working Group met monthly to facilitate coordination on a national level.

Together, these efforts have paid off. Since the 1994 enactment of FACE, the Department of Justice has obtained the convictions of a total of 56 individuals in 37 criminal cases for violations of FACE and other federal statutes relating to violence against health care providers. In addition, the Department has brought 17 civil actions against more than one hundred defendants under FACE, seeking injunctions and, where appropriate, damages and monetary penalties against individuals and organizations for interfering with access to reproductive health care services. For example:

  • In 1994, Paul Hill was charged with violating FACE for the shooting of a doctor and two clinic escorts in Florida; the doctor and one of the escorts were killed; the other escort was wounded. He was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.
  • Frank Bird was convicted and sentenced to one year of incarceration in 1995 for violating FACE by throwing a bottle through the window of a doctor attempting to enter a Houston clinic.
  • In 1995, two defendants were convicted of Hobbs Act and conspiracy charges, and sentenced to 37 and 41 months incarceration in connection with acid attacks on clinics in Syracuse, NY.
  • In June 1995, the Department obtained a preliminary injunction against three California members of Operation Rescue who allegedly interfered with and intimidated a doctor at his home. In February 1996, the Department obtained a permanent injunction protecting the doctor and his family.
  • Also in 1995, Robert Cook was convicted after soliciting another individual to assist him in killing reproductive health care providers and burning clinics. He was sentenced to a total of 176 months for solicitation to violate FACE as well as other charges.
  • In May 1995, the Department obtained a preliminary injunction against several individuals in Fargo, N.D. who blocked an entrance to the city's only clinic and threatened staff. In February 1996, the Department obtained an agreement protecting the clinic and staff at the clinic and their homes.
  • In 1995, the Department obtained a preliminary injunction and a temporary restraining order against Alan Smith for allegedly threatening and intimidating a reproductive health doctor and his family at both his home and his workplace in Pennsylvania and Ohio. (Smith's alleged activities included attempting to run the doctor off the road with his truck and telling the doctor's teenage stepdaughter that the doctor "was dead.") In August 1996, the Department obtained a finding of criminal contempt and a fine of $1,500 against Smith for violating the preliminary injunction by verbally threatening the doctor outside an Ohio clinic. Smith unsuccessfully appealed the conviction to the Sixth Circuit, and the case went to trial in 1997; we are still awaiting a decision.
  • In 1996, Ricky McDonald was sentenced to 30 months in prison for violating FACE and federal arson statutes for chaining a New Mexico clinic's doors shut and setting it on fire.
  • In July 1996, 35 individuals were sued for blocking access to a clinic outside of Philadelphia. In November 1996, the Department obtained a preliminary injunction protecting access to the clinic. In May 1998 the Court granted a permanent injunction against all the defendants.
  • In 1996, Angela Shannon was convicted for mailing a death threat to a Milwaukee doctor who performed abortions. She was sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison.
  • In December 1996, 10 individuals were sued for blockading a New York City clinic by pushing their way into the clinic and locking themselves together in front of the clinic's doors and elevators. After a jury trial, the court entered a permanent injunction protecting the clinic and in May, 1998 imposed civil penalties totaling $22,000.
  • In 1997, eleven defendants were convicted under FACE for blocking entrances to a clinic in western New York by chaining and gluing themselves to a car, a picnic table, the door, and each other. Two were sentenced to four months in prison, two to two months, and the remainder to time served (three days), supervised release, and community service.
  • Also in 1997, Richard Andrews pled guilty to setting fires at two California clinics and was sentenced to 81 months in prison.
  • In 1998, Joshua Cabaniss was sentenced to three months in prison after entering an Oklahoma clinic and punching and kicking the clinic's doctor.
  • Also in 1998, Fred Hart was convicted of two FACE Act violations by abandoning two Ryder trucks in front of a Little Rock clinic, thus obstructing access to the clinic and communicating a credible bomb threat to clinic staff. Several businesses and residences near the clinic were evacuated for several hours while bomb and arson experts investigated the trucks. The defendant was sentenced to one year home confinement, followed by three years' supervised release.
  • In July 1998, the Department obtained a preliminary and permanent injunction against a Kansas man for blocking the entrance to a Planned Parenthood clinic. In August, the Department filed for civil contempt.
  • In 1999, the Department obtained convictions in cases involving threats to clinics in Pennsylvania and Mississippi; e-mailed threats sent to various reproductive health care providers from a Florida man; and arsons of clinics in Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Fargo, North Dakota.

In response to the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian and other attacks on reproductive health care providers -- and to coordinate and build on already ongoing efforts -- Attorney General Janet Reno established the National Task Force on Violence Against Health Care Providers in November 1998. "The Department must do everything it can to protect providers and patients from acts of violence and to prevent unlawful interference with the delivery of constitutionally protected reproductive health care services," said the Attorney General in announcing the creation of the Task Force. "Every woman has the constitutional right to reproductive health care, and no person should ever be able to deny that right through violence."

The Task Force is led by the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. It is staffed by attorneys and other staff from the Civil Rights and Criminal Divisions of the Department of Justice, and by investigators and other representatives from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and the U.S. Marshals Service. The Department of Treasury's Assistant Secretary for Enforcement represents that Department on the Task Force and is consulted regarding oversight of the Task Force.

The Attorney General charged the Task Force with several wide-ranging functions. These objectives -- and a brief summary of the Task Force's work to date -- are as follows:

1) Coordinate national investigation and prosecution of incidents of abortion violence, with a focus on connections that may exist between individuals involved in criminal anti-abortion activities

  • Shooting of Dr. Slepian: National Task Force agents and lawyers have been actively participating in the joint efforts of local, state, federal, and Canadian officials working together to solve the murder of Dr. Slepian. James C. Kopp has been charged with the murder, in violation of FACE and federal firearms statutes. He remains a fugitive from justice and has been added to the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list. The Justice Department is offering a reward of up to $500,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fatal shooting.
  • Arsons: Task Force members have worked with U.S. Attorney's offices (USAOs) and field agents to investigate a number of arsons. As a result of these efforts, a defendant was convicted of attempting to set fire to a clinic in North Dakota, in violation of federal arson statutes, and sentenced to 60 months' incarceration; another defendant was convicted of setting fire to a clinic in South Dakota, in violation of federal arson statutes and FACE, and sentenced to 60 months' incarceration and six months' incarceration, respectively, to be served concurrently. Defendants charged with arsons of clinics in Albuquerque and Sacramento are currently awaiting federal trial.
  • Threats: Task Force representatives are also actively involved in numerous investigations of threats against reproductive health care providers. For example, Task Force personnel provided investigative and pretrial support and technical assistance in a Gainesville, Florida case in which the defendant pled guilty to making e-mail threats to reproductive health care providers in violation of federal threat statutes, and was sentenced to 16 months' incarceration. As a result of similar Task Force efforts in a variety of phone threat cases, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania defendant pled guilty and was sentenced to a period of incarceration and supervised release; a Mississippi defendant was convicted of telephoning a bomb threat to a clinic and sentenced to 13 months' incarceration; and a Utah defendant pled guilty to making a telephone threat to a clinic in violation of FACE, and was sentenced to probation.
  • Blockades: Task Force members have worked with USAOs and state and local law enforcement agencies to respond to anticipated blockades, and have helped to pursue FACE actions when blockades do occur. For example, Task Force members helped to obtain permanent injunctions against individuals who blockaded clinics in Washington, DC, Ohio, Philadelphia, and Englewood, New Jersey.

2) Serve as a clearinghouse for information relating to acts of violence against abortion providers, and collect and coordinate data identifying national trends related to clinic violence

Task Force analysts have collected information on incidents of violence, and have compiled a database for the use of investigators and prosecutors. The Task Force uses this data to look for connections between incidents, and to respond to requests for information from USAOs and field offices.

3) Make security recommendations to enhance the safety and protection of providers

  • Technical assistance and outreach on security to clinic personnel: Task Force personnel provide briefings on FACE protections and security issues to reproductive health care providers. Such activities include presentations at conferences of Planned Parenthood clinic security directors and doctors from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and regional security briefings for doctors and other clinic employees. These briefings include discussions of assessing the dangerousness of threats and other behavior, security precautions, and procedures for alerting law enforcement authorities of troubling activity.
  • In light of the history of shootings of abortion providers along the U.S.- Canadian border on or around the November 11 Remembrance Day anniversary since 1994, the Task Force provided a series of briefings to doctors and other clinic personnel in eight locations over the past two years. These briefings included presentations on assessing the dangerousness of threats and other suspicious activity, nuts-and-bolts security measures for home and office, and a discussion of available local, state, and federal law enforcement resources. Task Force personnel also worked with the USMS to issue an NLETS advisory to all local law enforcement on the significance of the Remembrance Day anniversary and the need for increased security and awareness around clinics and doctors' homes. The Task Force sent a similar advisory to the 93 USAO points of contact on clinic violence issues.
  • To further promote clinic security, the Task Force developed a CD-ROM based on the material provided in live security briefings, which will be made available to U.S. Attorneys' Offices, clinics, and their security directors.

4) Assist the work of the U.S. Attorneys' local working groups on clinic violence

As discussed above, the Task Force provides extensive technical assistance and support to USAO working groups involved in the investigation and prosecution of clinic violence. The Task Force also issues periodic e-mail updates on civil and criminal developments on clinic violence issues to all 93 US Attorney Working Group points of contact. For example, after a wave of anthrax threat letters, it urged all USAOs to convene their local working groups to discuss in advance responses to anthrax threats, and facilitated discussions with the Center for Disease Control to ensure appropriate public safety responses to anthrax threat letters. Similarly, the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section serves as a resource to the U.S. Attorneys with regard to blockades and related activities in their jurisdictions and provides guidance as to civil FACE issues.

5) Enhance training of federal, state, and local law enforcement on issues relating to clinic violence

  • Briefings/Trainings: Task Force personnel have participated (along with USAOs, local law enforcement, and providers) in a series of day-long briefings of federal, state, and local law enforcement officers on clinic violence in a number of locations across the country. The briefings, which include presentations by Task Force agents and lawyers, discuss techniques for the investigation and prosecution of criminal and civil FACE violations, potential Federal criminal laws applicable to clinic violence, advice on mail screening, and procedures for preserving evidence at bomb and arson scenes. State and local officials provide guidance on local laws available to address clinic violence. Health care providers and task force personnel discuss national and regional trends in clinic violence, and also address security resources available to law enforcement and to clinics. Recent briefings have also included presentations by representatives of the Center for Disease Control on responding to anthrax threats. ATF has additionally scheduled canine demonstrations relating to bomb and arson detection.
  • Task Force personnel have also briefed FBI agents on FACE and related issues at several Quantico training sessions, participated in a panel on FACE investigation and prosecution at the National Center on Women in Policing conference (a conference of 500 women law enforcement officials from across the country), and participated in a day-long Police Executive Research Forum symposium on developing effective local law enforcement strategies for addressing abortion-related conflict and violence.
  • The Task Force has developed a website that provides information about the statutes available to combat violence against reproductive health care providers, security measures available to providers, and relevant law enforcement agencies' areas of responsibility.
  • The Task Force has also developed a resource manual for United States Attorneys' Offices and other law enforcement personnel on FACE and other clinic violence issues. This manual includes discussion of specific investigative and prosecutive issues that arise in the clinic violence context, as well as sample pleadings and other reference materials.

6) Support federal civil investigation and litigation of abortion-related violence.

  • Civil litigation: In June 2000, the Department obtained permanent injunctions against Operation Rescue National (ORN) and several individuals who had allegedly blocked the entrances to three clinics in Cincinnati, Dayton, and Kettering, Ohio as part of ORN's week-long anti-abortion campaign.
  • In January 2000, the Department obtained a permanent injunction, applicable to any reproductive health facility within the D.C. metropolitan area, imposing a twenty-foot buffer zone with respect to a group of individuals who had blockaded a Washington, D.C. clinic by sitting and standing in front of the clinic's entrances, in commemoration of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade. The defendants' appeal to the D.C. Circuit is currently pending.
  • Monitoring and Enforcing Existing Injunctions: We monitor and, where necessary, work to support and enhance enforcement of such injunctions to prevent unlawful interference with patients and/or providers.

The Task Force's work has paid off to date, as violence against reproductive health care providers declined in 1999 and 2000. Investing in a visible, well-coordinated Task Force may well serve as a deterrent to those who might contemplate such acts of violence. The Task Force and its efforts demonstrate that, by working together at all levels, law enforcement can produce great success in investigating and prosecuting acts of clinic violence and enhancing the safety of reproductive health care providers.

Updated August 6, 2015

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