Threats and Those Who Make Them: Taking Them Seriously

“Oh, looky here, what a pretty face….what a shame about that pretty face”

These words were allegedly uttered by one of four members of the Teamsters union to Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi as she sat in her car. The Teamsters stood accused of attempted extortion and conspiracy to commit extortion for using strong arm tactics to coerce the production crew of Top Chef to stop using nonunion labor. A jury in Suffolk County Massachusetts found them not guilty of these charges on August 15, 2017.

Though he was not charged with making threats, the Teamster member’s choice of words to Padma Lakshmi is a prime example of a veiled threat. Veiled threats are coded statements in which no explicit intentions are articulated. This gives the utterer grounds for claiming that there was no legally actionable threat of harm. Veiled threats are similar to indirect ones when the exact consequences to the victim are ambiguous.

Perhaps the most famous indirect threat was made by Dirty Harry, the fictitious cop portrayed by Clint Eastwood, in Sudden Impact. Dirty Harry ‘persuaded’ the coffee shop robber to drop his gun by saying, “Go ahead, make my day”. Context is important in making the case that indirect or veiled threats constitute real threats to harm or to kill. In the case of Dirty Harry, all ambiguity is removed by the arresting visual of his pointing a large gun at the robber while saying those words. Since the robber was holding a woman hostage, Harry’s words were real crowd pleasers.

Far less imaginative but more common place examples of vague and indirect threats are made by perpetrators of domestic violence. Abusers are more likely to be arrested by making direct threats, such as ‘If you leave me, I will track you down and kill you, depending on whether the victim reported the threat to the police or if it was overheard by someone else. However, many threats are not reported to the police since the victim fears the very thing that the threatener is promising to do. Precisely due to their effectiveness as a terror tactic, death threats are considered to be one of the primary risk factors for intimate partner homicide.

One study found that victims of intimate partner-related homicide or attempted homicide were nearly five times more likely to have received a prior death threat than abuse victims who were not killed. However, this does not tell the whole story. In my interviews of victims of attempted homicide, I found that most had not just been threatened once but on multiple occasions. Half of these women reported having been threatened on a monthly basis in the year leading up to the attempted homicide. The victims also reported that the abuser’s threats had become increasingly graphic. One victim said that her abuser started to threaten to “to chop off my fingers one at a time and then my arms”. Another said that shortly before he tried to kill her by shooting her in the chest, her abuser threatened, “to maim me, to kill my daughter and to make me watch him raping his new partner”.

From these interviews, I learned that there is often a progression of threats by the abuser over time. They typically start as vague threats such as, “Keep it up.”, “You better be careful about what you say.”, and “You really don’t want to make me mad.” These often evolve to more explicit or dire ones such as “The kids are really going to miss you.”, or “If I can’t have you, nobody else is going to have you.”

Escalating threats are often accompanied, and are reinforced by, escalating violence. Escalation of threats appear to serve two functions for the abuser: 1) to keep the victim in fear, particularly when simple threats are no longer doing the job of preventing the victim from resisting him or from ending the relationship, and 2) to psych the abuser up. In my interviews of men who had killed their partners, at least one quarter of the 31 men said something along the lines of “The more I said it (threatened to kill her), the more it felt real that I could actually do it”. One killer told me, “I didn’t want her to think I wasn’t good on my word”.

It is important for the legal system, and for all other potential interveners to domestic violence, to recognize threats are not ‘just words’, or someone who is just ‘blowing off steam’ but rather as illegal acts and as potential plans of action. The law defines a threat as any words or gestures that place a person in fear of harm, regardless of whether the specific harm, or the means to carrying it out, are identified.

Back to the case of the Teamster who told the Top Chef host that she has “such a pretty face”, understanding the context is important. Ms. Lakshmi testified that the protagonist had his arm on the window of her car and was leaning in so close that she could smell him as he uttered those words. She said, “I felt like he was saying that he might hit me. I was petrified and wanted it to be over.”

Many victims of abuse know exactly what that feels like.

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