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Social Security judges facing increasing threats of violence

The number of reported threats against Social Security Administration employees or property is on the rise

"The numbers are increasing, and the threats are very serious," said Randall Frye, president of the judges association. "I've been in government 37 years, and I have never seen the anger from the public, generally, that I see now."

He's not the only one who sees a frightening trend.

A report by Social Security's inspector general says the number of reported threats against Social Security Administration employees and property leapt from 897 in fiscal year 2007 to 2,336 in 2010. About 13 percent of more than 2,100 randomly selected employees who responded to an inspector general's survey said they had been threatened at work in past three years, half of them more than once.

Here's a sampling of security threats from SSA incident reports provided by the union:

l A man who received an unfavorable ruling by a Greenville, S.C., judge in March "stated that he was a snipper with the military and he would go take care of the problem."

l A woman at the Morristown, Tenn., Social Security office felt discriminated against and had an unfortunate way of expressing her feelings in June. "The claimant stated she felt like she had been 'screwed over' because she's not Black or Mexican, and 'no wonder people shoot people at these offices.'" If she knew where the judge lived, "she would hurt him so that he would understand her pain."

l In an Albuquerque case in September, a caller unhappy with a ruling said he would cut off the head of the judge.

Action by the angry speaks more painfully than words.

A security guard at an SSA office in Sacramento was shot dead by a person upset over a denial of benefits in 2000. The Grand Rapids (Mich.) Press says a man shot himself in a Social Security office hours after receiving a letter denying him benefits in 2001.

Mark Brown, an administrative law judge in St. Louis since 1982, warns that increasingly vitriolic political rhetoric can fuel more than threats.

"I'm afraid with some people it is enough to push them over the edge," he said.

"Some of them are grappling with enough demons that some of this rhetoric can help them convince themselves that what they are doing is justified. Clearly it is not."

Like other judges, Brown wanted it known that he was speaking in his capacity as union official and not as a government spokesman. That's understandable, because the association is critical of Social Security's approach to office security.

One of the main things it wants is more than one guard in SSA hearing facilities. That one guard screens all members of the public entering the facility, while supposedly monitoring activity in the hearing rooms. Sometimes there are as many as 18 hearing rooms.

The judges are particularly upset with a rule they said allows those whose cases are being decided to determine whether guards may be in the hearing room.

The agency seems to have a different interpretation of the regulation, but adds, "we are clarifying our written policy."

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