The head of one of the most powerful law enforcement agencies in the country was in town Tuesday to talk counter-terrorism, cyber-war and the new challenges in the age of social media.
FBI Director James Comey stopped in Jacksonville as part of his tour of the country’s 56 FBI field offices.
His visit to the region was particularly timely with recent news of several Twitter threats aimed at nearby University of Florida.
Law enforcement informed students at the Gainesville campus of the threatening messages sent from 15 separate account holders from around the U.S.
While the threats are now believed to be a hoax, Comey said such stunts have real consequences.
“If people want to make fake threats, we’re going to find them and hammer them because we’ve got to send a message that it terrifies innocent folks and it wastes resources, very precious resources,” he said.
He told reporters Wednesday that his top priority right now is combating the very real threats of home-grown terrorism in the age of digital media.
High-profile groups like the self-titled Islamic State have capitalized on social media as a means of recruiting new members and targeting victims, he said.
“They broadcast their poison in 23 languages all over Twitter, all over Facebook, all through different platforms,” he said. “That threat is energizing people who, in some misguided way, are seeking meaning in their lives.”
Comey also took some time to address the growing rift between law enforcement and public following the deaths of Ferguson teen Michael Brown, Staten Island man Eric Garner and Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice. All three died at the hands of officers.
Grand juries in both the Brown and Garner case declined to indict the officers involved.
The FBI currently has an open civil rights investigation into Brown’s death.
“That’s involved working alongside state and local investigators in Ferguson to gather evidence so we can share it with the [Department of Justice] civil rights prosecutors so they can make an assessment about whether there’s a case there,” he said.
Easing the tensions the cases have caused between law enforcement and the community – particularly, those of color – begins with building closer relationships, he said.
“It’s hard to hate up close,” he said. “If you spend time with people, understand their values, their concerns both in the community and those of us in law enforcement, a lot of the barriers break down between us and so I’m a huge fan of making sure we know the communities that we’re charged with protecting.”
You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.