The Internal Revenue Service has programs that are supposed to improve its ability to identify taxpayers who represent a potential danger to IRS employees, but many IRS employees are unaware that such protections even exist, according to a new government report.

In 1984, the IRS commissioner assigned the IRS Inspection Service the responsibility of developing a program to improve the IRS’s ability to identify taxpayers who represented a potential danger to IRS employees. The Inspection Service developed the Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer Program and was assigned full responsibility for administering it.

For more than a decade, the PDT Program was the only means available to advise employees of possible dangerous situations. Its emphasis was on imminent danger or bodily harm and did not provide for less severe circumstances. In calendar year 1999, the IRS commissioner chartered a national task force with the sole objective of exploring and recommending options to enhance the safety of IRS employees. The task force led to the establishment of the Office of Employee Protection, which is now responsible for administering the PDT Program along with developing and administering the new Caution Upon Contact Program

But while these programs are adequately controlled, a review released Tuesday by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration found that some IRS employees who have direct contact with taxpayers do not have sufficient knowledge of the programs. 

TIGTA identified several threatening incidents by taxpayers that were not reported to either the Office of Employee Protection or TIGTA, and other circumstances where training courses and internal guidance for these employees were incomplete or inaccurate.

IRS employees may be exposed to many difficult, threatening, and even extremely dangerous situations because of daily and ongoing interactions with the public.  In 2010, an irate taxpayer, Andrew Joseph Stack III, set fire to his own house and then piloted a single-engine Piper Cherokee airplane into an IRS office building in Austin, Texas, killing one longtime IRS employee, Vernon Hunter, and injuring 13 others (see Plane Crashes into IRS Building).

The safety of its employees has always been a top priority for the IRS, the TIGTA report noted, but not all IRS employees know enough about the employee protection programs that the IRS administers.

“The IRS depends upon its employees to recognize dangerous taxpayers and properly report threatening incidents,” TIGTA Inspector General J. Russell George said in a statement.  “Failure to report threats or verbal abuse can put other IRS employees at risk.”

From interviews with 34 IRS employees who have had direct contact with taxpayers, 88 percent of these employees were familiar with the Potentially Dangerous Taxpayer, or PDT, designation, but only 29 percent had heard of the Caution Upon Contact, or CAU, designation.  In addition, only 18 percent of these employees have heard of the Office of Employee Protection and its mission, and only 15 percent responded that they had received specific training on the OEP and the PDT and CAU programs.

Furthermore, the OEP is located within the office that focuses on taxpayer compliance activities and not the office whose responsibilities include employee safety. TIGTA found that this organizational misalignment and the limitation of resources make it difficult for the OEP to properly and effectively administer the PDT and CAU programs.

TIGTA recommended that the IRS establish processes to ensure that all front-line employees receive annual PDT and CAU criteria training and ensure that Internal Revenue Manual sections for front-line employees include current, complete, and accurate information on the PDT and CAU programs. Finally, TIGTA suggested the IRS should determine where the OEP should be aligned in the organizational structure to enhance its mission of providing an agency-wide service.

In response to the report, IRS management agreed with all three of TIGTA’s recommendations for improvement and has taken or plans to take appropriate corrective action.

“This is an important program,” wrote Faris R. Fink, commissioner of the IRS’s Small Business/Self-Employed Division. “IRS employees face exposure to many difficult and even threatening and dangerous situations.”

The IRS intends to develop and distribute PDT and CAU training material to all operating divisions for required sharing with their public contact employees. It also plans to issue a memorandum to all operating divisions on the results of this audit and ask that they review their related Internal Revenue Manuals that reference PDT and CAU procedures to ensure consistency with Internal Revenue Manual Section 25.4. If the operating divisions identify inconsistencies, the IRS plans to ask that they furnish appropriate updated guidance. The IRS also intends to share the results of the specific TIGTA Internal Revenue Manual reviews referenced in the draft report with the appropriate offices for action. Finally, it plans to evaluate the organizational structure to determine the best alignment of the OEP.