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Trying to Stop ‘Swatting,’ a City Creates a Registry to Flag False 911 Calls

Seattle’s system is the first in the country to provide information about potential swatting threats to police ahead of time.

Seattle’s system is the first in the country to provide information about potential swatting threats to police ahead of time. AP Photo

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Seattle police created the first online registry that asks residents to help them identify potential swatting victims.

The malicious prank of “swatting” seems to have started with online gamers, who make false 911 reports to send a battalion of police officers to the home of a rival—a tactic that has confounded law enforcement across the country. In Seattle, police created a unique registry to equip themselves to identify these calls before they respond. 

Swatting calls are often designed to elicit a major response, suggesting a crime like a hostage situation, a murder, or a bomb threat is occuring at the address of a person the caller hopes to harrass. The goal is to force armed action from, as the name would suggest, a SWAT team or other heavily armed law enforcement officers.

The Seattle Police, which launched the registry in October 2018, called swatting “a deliberate and malicious act that creates an environment of fear and unnecessary risk, and in some cases, has led to loss of life.”

There has only been one death definitively linked to swatting, that of 28-year-old Andrew Finch, who was fatally shot by police in 2017 when they responded to a false report of a hostage situation made by a man playing Call of Duty with him online. The man who made the call was later sentenced to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors in the case said that “swatting is no prank.” 

“Sending police and emergency responders rushing to anyone’s home based on utterly false information as some kind of joke shows an incredible disregard for the safety of other people,” said U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister, who prosecuted the case. 

Online gamers are not the only people vulnerable to swatting. Celebrities, including Rihanna, Justin Bieber, and Russell Brand, have also been targeted. White supremacists and neo-Nazis have adopted the technique, using it against journalists and activists like David Hogg, a student who survived the 2018 Parkland shooting.

This week, Ijeoma Oluo, an author from the Seattle area, tweeted that she had been the victim of a swatting call, which she believes was at the hands of white supremacists. Someone had falsely reported gunshots and two dead bodies in her home to the police while her son was there alone. Oluo, who wrote the book So You Want to Talk About Race, said she had recently alerted the King County sheriff’s department about being doxxed (where a person’s name, address, and contact information are published online, and then used for harassment), on a swatting website so they called her before sending an armed response team. 

“The King County Sheriff's office handled this incident with great care. I'm so grateful,” she said. "Nobody wants this for their kid. Nobody wants someone showing up with rifles to wake their son up.”

The registry in Seattle aims to simplify the process that Oluo went through. On an online platform, residents can let police know if they have been doxxed or believe that they may be a target for swatting. Residents can also create a SMART 911 profile tailored to the needs of their household, where they can note if anyone living there is deaf or hard of hearing, has a medication condition, or other information they want first responders to know. 

Now, 911 call takers can crosscheck addresses for swatting concerns, and let law enforcement know before they arrive at the house. They can also call registered numbers at the address to check if a dangerous situation actually exists.

But the department stressed that police will still show up to any 911 call, even if a person has said they are candidates to be swatting victims. “Nothing about this solution is designed to minimize or slow emergency services,” the Seattle police said in its online explanation of the system.

Seattle’s system is the first in the country to provide information about potential swatting threats to police ahead of time. Lawmakers are also trying to tackle the dangerous practice at both the federal and state level. California passed a bill criminalizing swatting in 2013. In 2016, U.S. Rep Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced legislation that would have made swatting a federal crime. She became a victim of swatting a few months later.

She introduced the topic again in 2017, in legislation that would also ban doxxing and sextortion, the act of using sexual photos as blackmail, which is usually deployed against teenage girls (sextortion is already illegal in Utah and Arkansas). The Online Modernization Act would have asked the federal government to monitor online cimes, and also would have allocated $20 million in grants to state and local law enforcement for training in how to identify and investigate crimes like swatting.

The legislation was never voted on, though, leaving cities like Seattle to create their own solutions. 

But even with Seattle’s innovation, cities may not be equipped to investigate and prosecute these issues on their own, as Clark pointed out in an interview with NPR in 2018. “One of the issues...is that these calls can happen from anywhere,” she said. “When these calls come in from across state lines, sometimes even internationally, a federal law [would] help us with jurisdiction issues so that prosecutors and law enforcement have the ability to address crimes that take place in different states and, perhaps, even different countries.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty. 

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