No Joke: Searching for Serious Solutions to 'Swatting'

April 2, 2023
To combat and prevent “swatting” threats, law enforcement fights a two-front battle, and a rash of these calls targeting schools after the Nashville mass shooting shows how insidious the problem is.

Editor's note: Following the shooting at a private Christian school in Nashville, schools in multiple states—including Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Yorkwere the target of "swatting" calls, a disturbing trend that continues to surface in the aftermath of mass shootings. This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of OFFICER Magazine.

The man accused of shooting and possibly killing his girlfriend wasn’t answering his cellphone.

Police in Columbus, Ohio, had formed a perimeter around the house the suspect was allegedly in, possibly with a woman who may or may not have been alive. Streets were barricaded, roughly 15 patrol units responded to the scene, and a SWAT unit was called in.


Police, Schools across Minnesota Plagued by 'Swatting' CallsMultiple Mass. Schools Hit with 'Swatting" Calls after Nashville Shooting

When attempts at phone contact proved futile, police turned to an old school device: the public address system. A negotiator told the suspect that if he won’t answer his phone, he can call the command bus. The approach proved successful. The command bus line rang, and an angry suspect threatened to kill anyone who entered the house, vowing not to be taken alive.

This article appeared in the August issue of OFFICER Magazine. Click Here to view the digital edition. Click Here to subscribe to OFFICER Magazine.

Except it wasn’t the suspect. It was a resident in the neighborhood who heard the command bus phone number and, as a prank, called it pretending to be the suspect.

Except the original suspect shouldn’t have even been a suspect. Like the Columbus Police Department, the man in the house was the victim of a deadly prank: “swatting.” Frequently tied to the online gaming community, swatting is when a person—possibly an irate gamer or someone looking to intimidate an elected official—calls 911 to falsely accuse a victim of a crime that initiates a SWAT response. In many cases, the victims and the perpetrators don’t even live in the same geographic areas, a crime abetted by the connectivity of 21st century technology.

“You got the original swatting call, now you’ve got this other character who just happens to be listening and seeing all the commotion and hears the phone number, decides he’s going to play a prank, so these things can sprout,” Jason Pappas, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police for Ohio, tells OFFICER Magazine. “It created a real tense situation for the officers, which, thank God, they were able to get somebody in the house to acknowledge that they were there for that house.

“Then it was, ‘Hey, you know, I’ll come out with my hands up. I don’t know what the hell is going on.’ And so eventually they were able to work through it,” adds Pappas, a Columbus police officer. The incident illustrates how potentially explosive and deadly an act intended as a malicious prank can be. Swatting’s cautionary tale, though, happened in Wichita, Kansas, in 2017, when a 28-year-old father was shot and killed by an officer who was called to the home as part of a SWAT response set off by an upset gamer in California. The prank landed the gamer a 20-year prison sentence, and it led the Wichita Police Department to create an alert system for people concerned that they might be the target of a swatting call. In July, an appeals court ruled that the officer who fired the fatal shot can be tried in an excessive force civil case.

Even when a swatting call doesn’t end in tragedy, it still extracts a heavy toll on the victims and law enforcement.

“You’re talking about 20-plus officers for two or three hours on this standoff that didn’t exist,” says Pappas of the Columbus incident. “So it took valuable resources from the community. It was very costly to operate, and at the end of the day, it was very traumatic for the people who were involved and didn’t know that they were even involved. When they figured out that a SWAT team was there to search their house and make sure everybody’s OK, of course, then they were frightened and didn’t know what was going on.

“So this is not just a misuse of 911. These are elevated risk situations that create panic, that create a tremendous waste of resources,” he adds.

Seattle’s anti-swatting registry

One of the first law enforcement agencies to address the swatting problem head on was the Seattle Police Department. The idea was straightforward: Develop a voluntary database of people who fear or might be vulnerable to a swatting call. Using Rave Mobile Safety’s Rave Facility module, part of the of the Rave 911 Suite, alerts are provided concerning calls involving individuals who had requested to be in the registry.

“In the aftermath of the tragedy in Wichita, Kansas, I received a request from a community member asking for a way to register their address as a potential swatting target,” says Sean Whitcomb, the retired Seattle police public affairs director who launched the department’s anti-swatting registry. “This person had a network of other contacts who were asking for the same thing. These types of requests aren’t always easy to make, but this person was comfortable reaching out to me directly since we knew some of the same people. Confidentiality was very important, and this person knew I would respect that.”

At the time, the community request also dovetailed nicely into a department priority.

“Separately, the Seattle Police Department was positioning itself as a national leader in de-escalation training, so having a program in place to de-escalate swatting incidents was a very good fit,” says Whitcomb.

That confluence of events couldn’t have been timelier, something that “highlighted the urgency of my work,” he says. The registry was brought online Oct. 1, 2018. Two months earlier in August, the department was involved in an incident in which officers rushed into a home and cuffed a swatting victim.

“Life safety is the paramount concern when responding to any high-priority incident. When lives are at stake, seconds and minutes matter,” says Whitcomb. “Since high-priority incidents are less common, established training and processes can be helpful to ensure successful outcomes. Police have to treat these events as if they are real until they are confident that they are not. So the trick becomes to determine the validity of the event as quickly as possible, preferably before police even arrive.”

As a preventive measure, much of the success of Seattle’s registry lies with its appeal to residents who might feel vulnerable and threatened.

“First of all, it’s a community-driven solution to a very serious problem,” says Whitcomb. “Second, it can be completed online without any police contact. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the information in the registry is completely confidential, and exempt from Washington State Public Disclosure laws... This is especially important since those who might be at risk for swatting would also likely be at risk for doxxing.”

From a law enforcement perspective, the registry’s effectiveness is built on three pillars, according to Whitcomb:

  • Enhanced screening and detection in the 911 Center
  • An emphasis on de-escalation by first responders
  • Anti-swatting registry

“All three pillars complement each other, creating a success loop,” he says. “If one of the pillars is missing, there is still a good likelihood that a malicious swatting attempt will fail.”

Harsher penalties

Combatting swatting means swinging with a double-edged sword: one edge is law enforcement response, the other is legislative measures.

“This is much more complicated than just the misuse of 911, which is a misdemeanor. Because of the elevated risk and the elevated consequences, I think an elevated penalty is appropriate,” says Pappas. “These things are extremely dangerous for both the officers involved and for the public at large.”

In Ohio, lawmakers are proposing legislation that would create harsher penalties for the perpetrators of swatting calls. Under the nearly identical twin bills going through the state legislature, swatting would become a third-degree felony, and it could rise to a first-degree felony if someone is harmed in the incident. Offenders could be ordered to reimburse departments for the call’s response, as well.

Pappas says the state’s FOP supports both pieces of legislation in their current forms. The bills also show that swatting is a prevalent enough that state legislature needed to step in, he adds.

“I think (lawmakers) heard from their local agencies about the elevated risk, the enormous response and then the complications that come from it, and then pretty much the lack of any penalty thereof,” says Pappas. “In previous times, we would just charge somebody with misuse of the 911 or telecommunication system and pretty much be done with it. But that seems really insufficient for the elevated risk and response here.”

Whitcomb knows the importance of swatting being recognized as its own specific and unique offense. He helped in the successful effort to include swatting in Washington State’s criminal code. But the ultimate goal is for national crime recognition.

“Having swatting tracked as a unique event in the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) would provide greater visibility to this swatting crime trends,” he says.  

This article appeared in the August issue of OFFICER Magazine.

Sponsored Recommendations

Build Your Real-Time Crime Center

March 19, 2024
A checklist for success

Whitepaper: A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

July 28, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge

A New Paradigm in Digital Investigations

June 6, 2023
Modernize your agency’s approach to get ahead of the digital evidence challenge.

Listen to Real-Time Emergency 911 Calls in the Field

Feb. 8, 2023
Discover advanced technology that allows officers in the field to listen to emergency calls from their vehicles in real time and immediately identify the precise location of the...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!