Security Officials Reassure Nervous Public Ahead of Election Day 2020

Brad Orsini of the Secure Community Network addresses an anxious audience during a recent Zoom town hall held by Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.     Screenshot via Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia

Brad Orsini wanted to make one thing clear above all during a recent Zoom town hall about security concerns hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia: “We have no direct threats to anybody in the Jewish community.”

Orsini, the senior national security adviser of the Secure Community Network and the former community security director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, was making a point that was echoed by Jewish Federation’s director of security, Frank Riehl.

Despite such reassurances, it was obvious that there remains plenty of anxiety about communal safety ahead of the Nov. 3 election; a substantial portion of the questions asked by virtual participants focused on the dangers they fear could come that day.

“Is there any concern about, or expectation of, attempts regarding voter intimidation, either of individual Jews or organizations, either as Jews or supporters of Israel?” one participant asked.

“If we observe verbal or physical voter intimidation at the polls on Election Day, do we call 911, or a local police phone number or the FBI or someone else?” another wanted to know.

Laura Frank, director of public relations for the Jewish Federation and interim director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, led the town hall, and summarized several other participant questions that came in regarding staying safe from extremist groups like the Proud Boys and antifa.

Orsini and Riehl were joined by Dan Tantino, a supervisory special agent with the FBI, and Mike McGrath, superintendent of the Lower Merion Police Department. They spent about 30 minutes explaining the ways that their individual security teams were working with the Jewish Federation, detailing the ways that they share information, track any would-be threats, counter disinformation and work to ensure that Election Day is, above all else, boring.

Or, as Orsini called it: “A big nothing burger.”

What will create that particular burger, Orsini said, is a high level of preparedness. He said organizations like the Jewish Federation should be relying on the practices that have helped them to build a “conscious security culture.” That means reviewing crisis communications procedures, coordinating those with other interfaith institutions in the surrounding area, reviewing access control to the facility itself and practicing “cyber hygiene” — Orsini’s phrase to describe the way that organizations should review their social media interactions.
Emphasizing that no specific threats had yet been identified and, reading from a list of 10 daily security practices, Orsini said that cooperation and opens lines of communication between Jewish institutions and their partners in law enforcement is key.

“The last thing we want to have happen is on Nov. 3, we just don’t have a plan and we’re overreacting, or we’re underreacting to an event,” Orsini said. “We just want to know how we’re going to handle that.”

Though phishing emails, Zoom-bombing and hate mail directed at Jewish nonprofits has not abated, Orsini added, these are part of normal procedure at this point.

“We probably get at least 10 to 15 incidents related to the Jewish community across the country every single day,” Orsini said. “I’ve not seen one related to the election.”

Tantino suggested that attendees who want to learn more about the extremist groups that they fear attempt to find news sources without a political slant — sources that won’t muddy the waters in their descriptions of those groups.

McGrath repeated the assertion that no specific threats relating to Election Day, made against Jewish people, have been identified. Like the others, he noted that communication and collaboration between community organizations and law enforcement, as well as between law enforcement agencies, is a win for safety.

Riehl echoed Orsini’s pleas.

“The biggest thing that we can preach to you folks is just to reach out to us. No question’s a silly question, no observation’s a silly observation,” he said, describing the town hall as part of a broader effort toward anxiety reduction and “rumor management.”

“Trust me,” he added, “if you reach out to me, or to the local police department, someone will get back to you and we’ll try to track that down the best we can.”


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