Russell Hebets Feb. 16, 2018

Swatting is the act of calling in a false report of a very serious crime to police in order to prompt them to send a SWAT team (Special Weapons and Tactics) to someone’s home. This so-called prank has led to terrible legal consequences for some and worse, it led to the death of an innocent man at his home in Kansasthis past December.

This cruel prank has wasted police resources and created havoc for those caught up it in it. Families and neighbors are confronted by aggressive police without understanding why, leading to a host of dangerous misunderstandings. Sometimes bomb squads need to be called and families evacuated from homes, at other times, people find themselves falsely accused and looking down the barrels of police guns. Massachusetts representative Katherine Clark introduced an anti-swatting bill in Congress in 2015, only to become a victim of swatting herself when someone falsely reported an active shooter at her home.

It was inevitable that such a thoughtless act would lead to the worst consequences. In December of 2017, Wichita, Kansas police received a call concerning major crimes at Andrew Finch’s home. They swarmed the house to confront the alleged perpetrators, unbeknownst to Andrew. When he innocently made a move toward his waistband, an officer assumed he was reaching for a weapon and fired. Unfortunately, the single shot killed Andrew all based on a false report from hundreds of miles away.

Investigators were able to trace the false report to Tyler Barriss a gamer in California who called in a murder, kidnapping, and threat of arson to police at Andrew Finch’s address. Barriss believed he reported the address of a rival gamer, but the address reported was incorrect, Andrew had nothing to do with this game or anyone in this circle.

Legally, various statutes have been applied to prosecute swatters. In some states they receive false reporting charges, in others they have to repay the costs of services used. Federally, conspiracy and obstruction are often charged, and those charges sometimes extend to accomplices of the caller.

Kansas lawmakers are now holding meetings to consider more severe penalties for false reporting. Currently false reports lead to probation and possibly some jail time in Kansas. However the proposed bill would have different penalties for various levels of the crime, from the call itself to more severe consequences if injury or death occurs. In the worst case scenario, the person making the false report could get up to 40 years in prison.

The FBI reports that there are about 400 cases of swatting per year. While celebrities and politicians have been victims of swatting, it is also used to harass domestic violence survivors or those with controversial opinions like journalists. Not all of those reports are traceable as some people use spoof numbers as well as other methods to disguise their origins. These false reports are considered forms of terrorism for the havoc they wreak. There are federal laws against bomb threats and similar hoaxes but not false emergency calls. This is where Rep. Katherine Clark’s aforementioned bill would close that loophole. However, that bill has yet to pass, so in the meantime, each state, like Kansas, must enact its own changes to address the issue.

Hopefully people start to see how this is no prank at all, but a dangerous act that should be avoided.