Death threats, doxxing during pandemic described by Colorado public health officials

    BRIEF

    Billy Martinez, right, gets prepared to give Chris Kuelling, right, the COVID-19 vaccination during the mass vaccination event in the parking lots of Coors Field on Jan. 31, 2021, in Denver. UCHealth organized the large-scale COVID-19 vaccination event. They partnered with the governor’s office, CDPHE, city of Denver and Colorado Rockies to develop plans for this drive-through clinic. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, pool)

    As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, El Paso County Public Health officials trying to enforce and educate the public about state and local orders were told in one instance they had “better call an ambulance” if they tried to show up at public events.

    Another time, someone commented that public health officials would “end up in body bags.”

    The agency’s director, Susan Wheelan, offered those examples to justify her support for a Colorado bill that would offer some privacy protections for public health workers who’ve faced threats against themselves and their family members.

    Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony from Wheelan and other officials during a March 2 hearing on House Bill 21-1107, sponsored by Reps. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton, and Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican. The bill would allow public health workers to request that their personal information — such as home addresses and phone numbers — be omitted from public records available on the internet, because of an “imminent and serious threat” to their health or their family’s health.

    State Rep. Yadira Caraveo
    State Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Democrat from Thornton, represents Colorado House District 31. (Colorado General Assembly photo)

    If the health worker’s request were granted by a state or local government official, then it would become a class 1 misdemeanor for someone to publish their personal information online.

    “As a pediatrician, I know firsthand how critical our public health officials are for our communities,” Caraveo told the committee members. “We all know the public backlash that health officials have faced throughout the country.”

    People angry about coronavirus restrictions posted online about hanging the Gunnison County Public Health Department director and holding an armed protest outside her home, according to testimony from Jonathan Houck, chair of the Gunnison County Board of County Commissioners.

    Houck said he follows “certain social media groups within our community” to monitor them for possible threats against officials.

    A Tri-County Health Department office in Aurora was vandalized six times, and the health department’s administrative offices faced a fire-bombing threat, said Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter, calling the incidents “frankly horrifying.”

    The local officials all spoke in support of passing HB-1107 to keep health workers’ addresses and phone numbers off limits to the public. Child protection workers and Department of Human Services workers already enjoy the same protections that HB-1107 would grant public health workers, under separate Colorado laws that Carver sponsored in 2019 and 2020.

    So far, no one has been prosecuted for violating those laws by publishing protected individuals’ personal information online — a practice sometimes called “doxxing.” But Carver said that could change as it becomes more common for angry internet users to post officials and workers’ personal information, such as home addresses, online.

    “I think this pattern of doxxing with malicious intent is something that … seems to be a growing pattern of behavior,” Carver told the committee. “Threats of violence are unacceptable. Acts of violence are unacceptable.”

    HB-1107 was approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee on March 2. It now moves to the full House for consideration.

    A similar bill, House Bill 21-1015, would create similar protections for employees at the Department of Corrections. The committee unanimously approved that bill March 2 as well, sending it to the full House.