Troublesome Behavior: Defending Against Harassment of Public Officials and Employees
Things have been pretty stressful lately. From the pandemic to political unrest, tempers have been pretty hot and unfortunately local government employees or elected officials sometimes bear the brunt of the public’s anger and frustration.
What can local governments do to protect officials and employees and to ensure that the work of government can continue? This blog explores strategies for dealing with members of the public that cross the line.
Harassment of Employees
Local governments, as employers, have an obligation to protect their employees from harassment — even if that harassment comes from a member of the public. If that harassment is based in discrimination due to a protected class (i.e. age, sex, race, creed, color, disability, etc., RCW 49.60.180), then the employer can be potentially liable under the Washington Law Against Discrimination for creating a hostile work environment. See LaRose v. King County, 8 Wa. App. 2d 90 (2019).
What should be done, then, if the person disrupts, threatens, or harasses employees? First, the employee can politely ask the person to stop or maybe even ask them to leave. If necessary, the employee can get a supervisor, manager, director, or mayor to help. A local government may find it necessary to designate a senior official to handle all future communication from a particular person in order to protect rank-and-file employees. Jurisdictions should also consider providing conflict de-escalation training, particularly for staff that have a high level of public contact.
If the problem persists, police intervention could be an option.
Court Actions to Protect Officials and Employees
State statutes allow local governments to pursue charges against an individual who may be threatening or harassing staff or officials or otherwise disrupting work:
- Under RCW 9A.52.080, a charge of trespass might be possible if the person remains onsite and continues to disrupt the business of the municipality.
- Under RCW 9A.46.020, a person can be charged with harassment (i.e., causes or threatens bodily injury, physical damage to property, threatens physical confinement or restraint, or maliciously acts to substantially harm another’s mental health or safety).
- Under RCW 9A.76.180, a person could be charged with intimidating a public servant if, by threat, they attempt to influence a vote, opinion, decision, or other official act.
Potentially arresting a member of the public or having a criminal complaint filed against a person is a very serious step for a local government to take but it may need to be considered if the person makes it impossible for business to be safely or effectively carried out. Agencies may want to consider criminal charges only when other methods (such as de-escalation) have failed or for serious incidents.
Use of protection orders
As a preventative measure, if a person’s conduct is improper, serious, and ongoing, the agency’s attorney may need to request a restraining or protection order from the court to prevent the person from entering a building where government activity is being conducted. If the harassment is continuous and directed to a specific individual, the person being harassed could ask a court for an anti-harassment protection order under RCW 10.14.080. Anti-harassment orders are directed at protecting individuals, so it may be difficult to obtain an order that generally applies to all agency offices. Also, to obtain an order, the applicant must prove a pattern of conduct (RCW 10.14.030). Purely verbal threats — which may not be considered “conduct” — may not be sufficient to support an order. Also, one-time incidents would likely not be considered a “pattern.”
Exclusion from Agency Buildings
Agencies can administratively exclude people from government buildings for disruptive conduct. The agency’s policy should provide for progressively longer periods of exclusion based on the severity of the conduct and the number of previous incidents, and it must provide for an appeal process. Examples of municipal codes that provide for excluding certain persons from public areas or buildings include:
- Federal Way Municipal Code Sec. 4.05.050
- Port Townsend Municipal Code Ch. 9.50
- See also City of Bremerton v. Widell, 146 Wn. 2d 561, where the court upheld criminal trespass convictions based on violations of administrative trespass warnings issued pursuant to a policy adopted by the housing authority.
Disruptions of Public Meetings
MRSC consultants have written numerous blog posts on dealing with disruptive behavior from members of the public during a public meeting, including When First Amendment Rights and Public Meetings Clash. Essentially, a jurisdiction is empowered to set policies on how public comment will be received and what behaviors will not be tolerated:
Governing bodies can establish rules that regulate public comment but these must be reasonable restrictions on time, place, and manner that are viewpoint neutral. Additionally, when enforcing the rules of decorum, an actual disruption of the business of the governing body is necessary prior to removing or disconnecting the speaker. RCW 42.30.050 allows the majority of the members of a governing body to clear the room and adjourn/reconvene a public meeting if the meeting is interrupted by a group of persons so as to render the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible. If a person merely uses profanity or states lies without actually disrupting the meeting, then this behavior is not sufficient enough to justify ordering the individual to leave the meeting or clearing the meeting entirely.
If the meeting room has to be cleared, council members may readmit an individual or individuals not responsible for the disruption. And, representatives of the news media, except those participating in a disturbance, are required to be readmitted to such meetings.
We ask a lot of our public servants, and time and again they rise to the challenge. As we continue to navigate these challenging times, we must all do our part to keep our tempers in check. When that fails, proactive steps can be taken to ensure government business can continue without disruptions.
MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.