A Detroit Police officer uses tear-gas on protesters during a demonstration in Detroit, Michigan late May 29, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes. - Violent protests erupted across the United States late Friday over the death of a handcuffed black man in police custody, with murder charges laid against the arresting Minneapolis officer failing to quell boiling anger. Photo by Seth Herald via Getty.
A Detroit Police officer uses tear-gas on protesters during a demonstration in Detroit, Michigan late May 29, 2020, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in Minneapolis after a white policeman kneeled on his neck for several minutes. - Violent protests erupted across the United States late Friday over the death of a handcuffed black man in police custody, with murder charges laid against the arresting Minneapolis officer failing to quell boiling anger.

The chief of staff for state Sen. Rosemary Bayer was woken up by the FBI for questioning one October morning. This legislation is why.

SOUTHFIELD, Mich.—Katie Reiter woke up days before the Nov. 3 presidential election as agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation were “banging on my door, yelling ‘police,'” Reiter told The ‘Gander. “I threw on my bathrobe and literally ran down my stairs, thinking maybe my husband had been in an accident or something.”

“When I got to the door, and saw they were not in uniform, I asked them to show me ID,” Reiter said. “They then said they were not actually the police, but rather the FBI.”

Reiter, the chief of staff to state Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), was questioned by the FBI about her alleged plan to disrupt the election with tear gas. Of course, she didn’t have any such plot, as the FBI quickly determined. She had been discussing a proposed piece of legislation with Bayer’s staff that would prohibit police use of tear gas ten days prior to her encounter with the FBI. 

But the encounter was one she would not quickly forget.

“Honestly, I wasn’t sure if they were law enforcement or some nefarious men trying to get into my house. They refused to tell me why they were there until I opened the door,” Reiter told The ‘Gander. “The whole situation felt very unreal and dangerous. Hence, I told them I needed to get changed. I went back upstairs and called my sister, who lives a few blocks away, and the Southfield Police.”

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Reiter believes the FBI showed up at her doorstep because of a conversation between Reiter, Bayer, and the rest of their staff, which included a reference to “dropping” the tear gas legislation before or after the election. In legislative parlance, the term “dropping” can mean to introduce a bill. It is suspected that a person in Reiter’s house to repair her dishwasher overheard the exchange and, lacking context, suspected a plan to disrupt the election.

“We will work together as a caucus to plan [dropping the bill], that’s part of the conversation we were having that day, actually,” Bayer told The ‘Gander. “Timing is everything.”

What Was the Bill?

Lawmakers, Bayer explained, introduce legislation in packages to provide context for any particular bill. Her staff was discussing police reform packages and the right timing to propose legislation in response to a summer of protests against police brutality, after George Floyd had been killed at the hands of Minneapolis police. 

In particular, Bayer’s bill was focused on making the use of tear gas illegal in Michigan. It was intended for a police reform package Democrats were designing that did not wind up on the Legislature’s agenda. Bayer intends to introduce it alongside other reform proposals in this legislative term. 

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“It’s an arena that makes sense to be nonpartisan, not political, but it’s hard for us as a minority to get some of our ideas through,” Bayer told The ‘Gander. “As a Democrat in the Michigan Senate, we are in the minority, and the bills that we’ve created that are designed to address police violence and inequities in the justice system are very difficult to get hearings for.”

Bayer hopes that her tear gas legislation follows the trend of the rare successes like the recent criminal justice reforms signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

Tear gas is considered a chemical weapon banned in international use as a tool of warfare. In fact, tear gas was created and used extensively in the first World War for its effects that cause feelings of burning and suffocation; extensive use of tear gas alone led to thousands of deaths. But a century later, tear gas is commonly used around the world, from the United States to Hong Kong, as a crowd control measure by police.  

In the summer of 2020, it was a popular response to protests of police brutality. The most infamous example of this was President Donald Trump ordering the use of tear gas on protesters so he could walk across the area they had gathered for a photo opportunity

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Banning its use, according to Bayer, is necessary as a component of rebuilding public trust in police. Which, given law enforcement’s role in responding to the bill, is an interesting coincidence. But at least the FBI has worked with Bayer’s office to address concerns.

Working to Better the Bureau

Initially, Bayer thought the FBI’s involvement in the bill was a result of some sort of electronic surveillance. As a software engineer, she was working through that thought, but if that had been the case, why would the FBI not contact her office? And wouldn’t the FBI have known the context of Reiter’s comments? When the bureau explained it came from a concerned citizen, Bayer said, that made sense.

But a few other things about the October encounter with the FBI struck Bayer as odd, and she communicated with the Bureau office in Detroit about them, she said. 

The FBI did not respond to requests for comment on this incident, but Bayer did explain to The ‘Gander the explanation given to her office. As it turns out, the ten days between the report of the conversation and the FBI waking up Reiter was a result of the report not being seen as a credible threat. Bayer does understand that the FBI was inundated with leads in the days before the election and had to run down anything even remotely credible. 

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She feels they should’ve just called her office and discussed things. But they were overworked, she said, and she focused conversations with the FBI on improving the process for others.

“There were a lot of bumbling things about it,” Bayer said. “We had a lot of really strange conversations about it.”

But communicating with their office, Bayer has said that the incident will be reviewed by the bureau and issues will be improved for the future. She said she is more than willing to help along the way. 

“They did offer to look at their processes and see if there are ways to improve some of those things,” Bayer said. “I think we’ll have the opportunity to be involved in some of those things if that makes sense for us to do.”