How much training is there for IRS agents facing the threat of physical harm?

A recent audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), looked how the IRS deals with threats ad physical harm against IRS agents. Fede...

Let’s face it, the IRS is not necessarily the most popular agency. But while most just grouse about having to deal with it, some take it to an even more harmful level, by making and acting on threats of physically harming IRS agents. So what processes are in place for agents to report these people? A recent audit by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), looked to answer that question. To learn what it found, Federal Drive with Tom Temin Executive Producer Eric White spoke with Kent Sagara, who is the Acting Manager of TIGTA’s Office of Inspections and Evaluations.

Interview Transcript: 

Kent Sagara In TIGTA we also had sort of the concern in terms of, you know, there’s a lot of information out there in terms of misinformation as well, in terms of against the IRS and the government. So that raised our concerns, you know, in terms of making sure that the IRS is sort of in the best position it can be in to protect its employees. And so that was sort of the impetus of starting the evaluation to look at this program.

Eric White And so what did you all find in analyzing what the agency provides as far as support and directions on what IRS workers, what steps they need to take when either actually assaulted or facing the threat of physical harm.

Kent Sagara So the IRS requires all employees to take this annual mandatory briefing on physical security. And this briefing includes information like IRS security policies and procedures. It also includes actions that employees should take to prepare for and respond to potential security incidents and emergencies. And so included within this briefing is a requirement to report insults and threats to the IRS Situational Awareness Management Center. It’s also called SAMC. You know, the IRS loves its acronyms. Oh, yeah. Oh, and also to TIGTA. And that’s sort of the background. So the IRS employees understand what their responsibilities are. And so during our evaluation, you know, we wanted to see whether this training was actually provided to all employees. And it just so happens that there was another evaluation being done on active shooter readiness and training. And that same training was included in their review. And they basically took a look at, you know, whether all the employees were taking that training. So we sort of piggybacked off of that review. And then in its May 2023 report, you know, they found that 98% of all employees took the training. So that’s a good thing. However, they also found that only 71% of contract employees who work at IRS facilities completed that training. So as part of their review, you know, they made the recommendation to ensure that contractors, you know, take the training. And if they don’t take the training, they’re sort of denied entry into IRS buildings.

Eric White Gotcha. And as far as this training goes, does that pertain to being able to recognize when a bad situation is about to occur or does the training involve just, you know, who to report to after the fact?

Kent Sagara Yeah, the training does provide like definitions in terms of what’s considered an assault and what’s considered a threat. So at least there’s a basis they can form when it’s occurring or, you know, when it’s happening sort of on the fly. Employees out there sort of make that decision to sort of, you know, the first thing they sort of explains that you’re trying to de-escalate the situation, you know, as best you can. But sometimes it proceeds and then when it gets sort of out of hand, that’s when after it’s all said and done, they have to report it out to the proper authorities.

Eric White So once that occurs, what does the agency have in store next? Like I mentioned before, are their support options or do they just kind of take it from there?

Kent Sagara Once an incident like that occurs, they’re supposed to report it to both the IRS and TIGTA. So there are processes and procedures in place within both organizations making sure that the incident is recorded onto their system and so they can then process and work it as quickly as they can. And that is one of the things that we looked at in terms of, you know, the guidance that was provided to employees. You know, the training is one aspect of it. You know, and you take that once a year and that’s fine. But, you know, we’re sort of looking at the instruction and guidance that are out there that employees can refer to whenever needed to. And so, you know, one of the things we looked at was what’s out there for employees to look at. And we did find some inaccuracies and inconsistencies in terms of what employees are told to do. For example, the inaccurate report had to do with you know, they were saying that you can report an incident via fax. Well the fax number really didn’t operate and didn’t really work, but it was still on their instructions, you know, So we told the IRS, you know, if you’re going to keep it, make sure it’s on. If you’re not going to keep it, go ahead and turn it off and then take it out of your guidance. And then the inconsistent message. You know, there are various ways that employees can report these type of incidents in terms of reporting it to TIGTA you know, they can contact their local TIGTA special agents. They can call either the TIGTA 24/7 toll free answering service or the TIGTA toll free hotline number, or they can submit an online form on TIGTA’s website. And then from the IRS perspective, know employees can call the SAMC toll free or 202 hotline number. They can also send an email to the SAMC email box, or they could submit sort of an online incident report form on its internal website. And then what’s that done? Then that’s when the processing sort of occurs. And typically we’ll follow up with the employee to do the interview to make sure to get their sort of statements. IRS does the same and then, you know, TIGTA will go off and sort of do their investigation of it. And so just in terms of the guidance provided, we did find these several examples. And so we did recommend the IRS to sort of come up with a single reporting message and then sort of update all of its guidance with that single message.

Eric White Yeah, you may have just partly answered this, but given all those options and guidance provided overall, you all, you know, made recommendations. But were the discrepancies only in the fact that not every IRS employee knew about these options or they just weren’t functional?

Kent Sagara Yeah. One of the things we did during the evaluation was we actually went out and visited taxpayer assistance centers to sort of talk to those frontline employees. We got a feel for, you know, do they understand how to report incidences and you know, what to do in those situations. And what we found is there’s sort of some I guess there’s some uncertainty, you call it, that they’re not quite sure what to do. And so we sort of guided them, you know, to the guidance on their website as well as in some of the training material. And so what we made recommendations to the IRS was, you know, maybe create like a poster that sort of lays out all the reporting options that you can hang somewhere in the employee areas of all these tax centers. And then the IRS also have these little, I guess, wallet size sharing cards that has reporting instructions that the employees can carry with them. So we sort of we recommended that they make that available to all employees just so they get a better feel for what to do know when these situations occur.

Eric White And just out of curiosity, you mentioned that you talked to some frontline employees. Did you actually talk to any people who were victims of assaults or threats against them?

Kent Sagara It just so happens that one of the folks that we did talk to had gone through an incident about maybe six or seven months prior. So she actually knew exactly what to do because she went through that and she did, you know, express a lot of concern, as did many of the other employees we talked to, because it was sort of a topic they didn’t think about. But when we sort of engage them, you know, we ask them to do something they’re very concerned about. And and they were to some degree, but they understood that, you know, there’s a job to do. You know, you’re going to deal with taxpayers, you know, of all different mindsets. They sort of have to just be aware.

Eric White Interesting. And so, you know, this is a crime and I’m not a lawyer, but I’m going to guess that assaulting an IRS agent is or even making threats is probably against some sort of federal law. What stage does the prosecutorial side of things enter the picture and what role does the IRS play in facilitating that?

Kent Sagara Yeah, So that that actually goes a little beyond what we looked at in terms of just the reporting aspect of these things, because that’s more of the tail end as it’s being work. I will tell you that yes TIGTA is sort of the law enforcement agency over the IRS and it is a federal crime to assault, resist, impede, oppose or intimidate, you know, federal employees as well as those dealing with the IRS. And so they’re the ones who will take that, I guess, the investigation and start working it from a criminal perspective. You know, and the things that we looked at were more the administrative side and what they can do within the IRS to ensure that, you know, this taxpayer who did something to an employee is sort of recognized in his or her account.

Eric White Yeah, it’s something that probably not a lot of folks think about in speaking with you. You know that the IG body is a law enforcement entity that can make arrests. Is that correct?

Kent Sagara That is correct.

Eric White Anything else that we didn’t touch on that you think is important for the conversation?

Kent Sagara You know, at the end of the day, the whole goal of our evaluation was sort of taking a look at all the different processes and guidance and what have you. And it really comes down to it. You know, once the assault and threat are confirmed and there’s a nexus to tax administration, you know, the IRS has to post these indicators on these tax accounts. And and the whole reason they do that is so any other employee in the future who sort of accesses that tax account, this indicator will pop up and say, hey, just as a warning, you know, this person has previously assaulted or threatened another employee, you know, so you want to take the necessary precautions if you have to deal with that taxpayer. So really, it’s for the protection of the employees. You can’t protect them, you know, when it first occurs, because no one can sort of suspect that. But once it occurs and it’s confirmed, you know, the IRS takes the necessary steps.

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