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Swatting, a scare tactic on the rise, may see harsher punishment in WA

Lawmakers want to make it a felony to harass others with fake 911 calls meant to elicit a police response.

Text redacted from a police transcript

Part of a transcript from a 911 call on July 26, 2019.

Last year,  a woman in Burien called 911 to report her sister’s boyfriend was holding her and her family hostage. When the 911 operator attempted to gain more information, the woman, sounding panicked, said: “He’s going to take my phone,” then abruptly hung up. 

Police raced to the address provided, but when they arrived, they found no one being held against their will, according to a King County Sheriff's Office report obtained by Crosscut. The couple living there had no idea who had called. 

It wasn't until the next day that Roy Tate, one of the occupants of the house, called police to let them know that approximately five officers — hands on guns and flashlights gleaming — had shown up at his house at 11:30 p.m.

“I thought someone was about to burglarize my house,” Tate said, clearly still shaken by the incident. 

Swatting incidents — making a false 911 call so that a police unit or special weapons and tactics team is deployed, often to an unsuspecting person's residence — are on the rise in the Seattle area, according to the Seattle Police Department. While there were only eight swatting cases reported in 2017, there were 63 in 2018 and 2019 combined, Seattle Police said. 

“If all you’re trying to do is scare someone, or shut down their voice, then swatting is a terrifying and likely effective tactic,” said James Feore, director of the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association, an organization of game developers and streamers, among others.

A bill in the Legislature, unanimously approved by the Senate this week and awaiting Gov. Jay Inlee’s signature, is aimed at addressing swatting’s potentially serious consequences by making the false reporting of a crime a felony when someone is injured or killed. The new law would also give a victim of swatting the right to sue. Law enforcement or a city would also be able to seek damages. 

One of the more notorious recent swatting incidents involved Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race. She was at the Boston airport last year when the King County Sheriff’s Office contacted her. Someone pretending to be her 17-year-old son — who was at home alone — had called police, claiming he had just killed two people. Luckily, Oluo had already warned King County police that she had been listed on a swatting website and was at risk.  

In a less publicized incident a couple of months later, Oluo was again a victim of swatting at a speaking event in Seattle. Because of the previous incident, police responded cautiously when a person called 911 with threats of violence. Officers surrounded the building and treated the call as a serious but unconfirmed threat.   

Experts say swatting first started becoming more common about a decade ago among gamers looking to pull a prank on competitors. 

Anyone with a presence on YouTube or Twitch, a live streaming platform for gamers, or someone involved in podcasting can be especially vulnerable to swatting, Feore said.  

“Some 13-year-old calling in a bomb threat doesn’t appreciate the gravity of what they’re doing,” Feore said, noting that some of those who participate in swatting are juveniles. 

Two years ago, Seattle police received a 911 call from someone who claimed to be a suicidal teenager. When police searched for him in a library in Seattle’s Madrona neighborhood, they found 25-year-old Reymon Leavell, who is developmentally delayed and who, according to his mother, was traumatized by the event. Leavell was not suicidal.   

Those who express their political views online are also likely targets. Even those involved with seemingly innocuous content, such as cooking or arts and crafts shows, have been victims of swatting. The anonymity and toxicity of the internet lends itself to the practice, Feore said.

“It’s not just dangerous to these broadcasters, but it’s unfair to law enforcement who have been put in that position,” he said.

The desire to get back at a gaming competitor through swatting has had deadly consequences. In 2017, a Wichita police officer shot and killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch after someone falsely reported a hostage situation. The caller had claimed Finch had shot his father in the head and was holding his family at gunpoint. When Finch answered the door, an officer shot him after he mistakenly thought Finch had reached for a weapon. Tyler Rai Barriss, a Call of Duty player who, as it turns out, erroneously gave police the address of someone not involved in gaming, was last year sentenced to 20 years in prison for making the false call.  

Locally, a Kenmore man who works in the video game industry, and who asked to remain anonymous, has twice been the victim of swatting, most recently last fall. In the first incident several years ago, three to four officers with automatic weapons showed up at his home as he and his wife were about to sit down for dinner. When his wife answered the door, she slammed it shut before she turned to him and said “It’s for you.” The Kenmore man went outside with his hands up and answered the officers’ questions to stop the situation from escalating.    

The Kenmore man said he considers swatting an occupational hazard. Gamers, he said, tend to be both passionate and tech savvy, but not always part of the social mainstream.  

It isn't just gamers or broadcasters who are impacted by swatting. The practice has become more widespread, with white supremacists and others targeting  vulnerable communities based on their religion, race or LGBTQ status.  

“Many people who are using swatting as a weapon are focusing on people they consider othered,” said Monisha Harrell, chair of Equal Rights Washington, an LGBTQ advocacy organization. “It’s about taking people’s safety away from them. It’s about taking away their safe spaces, without picking up a weapon.”

Rules surrounding political discourse have changed, Harrell added. “A lot of it has been weaponized. They only talk so much,” she said. Swatting is a weapon against those with whom you might disagree. 

State Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, one of the sponsors of the swatting legislation, attributes the increase in incidents to both emerging technology and the current political climate.  

“The president of the United States has given at least tacit permission for the alt right and white supreamcists to be more out in the open than they used to be,” Salomon said. 

Just last week federal prosecutors charged five people tied to the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen with engaging in a campaign to intimidate and harass journalists and others, including a member of President Donald Trump’s cabinet, in part through swatting. Chris Ingalls, an investigative reporter with KING 5, and members of the Anti-Defamation League in Seattle, were among those targeted. 

Attacks like these have led the Anti-Defamation League to become a champion of swatting legislation in Washington state and elsewhere. Kendall Kosai, the league’s associate regional director in the Pacific Northwest, said eight other states have passed some kind of swatting legislation: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, and New Jersey.

Seattle was the first city in the country to create an anti-swatting registry. People who have been victim of a swatting incident can register their address with police. When a 911 call taker receives a report of a critical incident, the operator can dispatch help while simultaneously checking on whether swatting concerns have been registered for that address. That information is then shared with the officers responding to the call. Other cities like Wichita, where someone was killed as a result of swatting, have created their own registries. 

There are some concerns that elevating swatting to a felony will only contribute to the problem of mass incarceration. Alison Holcomb, political director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said criminalizing any activity, whether drugs or other activities, never works.    

“It never actually deters the activity it’s intended to deter,” Holcomb said, noting that the onus should be on officers to learn better deescalation tactics. 

Others, such as an unidentified video game streamer who last year was a victim of swatting, believes the new legislation is absolutely necessary.  

“Swatting is something that is high impact with very low risk. Someone doesn't even need to use their real phone number to make the call to 911,” she wrote in an email to Crosscut. “So if there's someone that you don't like, or if there's someone you just really want to scare or harm, you don't need to turn up to their house yourself, you don't need to interact with them yourself at all, you can call 911 and have the SWAT team do it all for you.

“These people know that there are no consequences and that's allowing this to run rampant.”

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