Swatting: A Deadly Twenty-First Century Prank

by George Collins

It was another ordinary visit to the Madrona-Sally Goldmark branch of the Seattle Public Library for Reymon Leavell. The 25-year-old man visits the library every day to kill time.

But things took a turn for the worse on that August day in 2018 when police entered the library with weapons drawn in response to a 911 call from someone claiming to be at the library. The caller told dispatch his girlfriend had killed herself the day before, he had a gun in his pocket, and he was going to pull the trigger. Officers handcuffed the bewildered Leavell and searched him for weapons.

The experience left Leavell with major emotional trauma. His mother, Roxanne, expressed outrage that police handcuffed her son, who has a developmental disability that makes straightening his right arm difficult. She said her son could have been killed, due to someone prank calling 911.

The family filed a civil suit against the Seattle Police Department over officers’ treatment of Leavell. The Emerald contacted the family’s attorneys, but they declined to comment on the case due to where it now sits in the procedure.

One year later in the early morning, Seattle-based author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo boarded a plane in Boston. She received a call from the King County Sheriff’s office before takeoff saying a report of gunshots at her home had reached the bureau. Her older son was home alone and Oluo feared he was in danger.

Except there were no gunshots.

“Someone apparently called and said there were two dead bodies in my house,” Oluo wrote. “My older son is there alone. I called him and woke him up. There were no gunshots. These hateful white supremacists are trying to get my family killed.” Oluo could not be reached for comment on the incident.

What happened to both Leavell and Oluo is known as “swatting,” a digital-age practice of siccing police on high-profile or unsuspecting targets. The Seattle Police Department defines swatting as “the act of creating a hoax 911 call…with the goal of diverting emergency public safety resources to an unsuspecting person’s residence.” The practice gained national media attention in late 2018 when Los Angeles resident Tyler Barriss earned 20-25 years in prison, after one of his dozens of fake phone calls to police resulted in the death of an innocent man in Kansas who was fatally shot as a result of the call.

Precursors to swatting have existed for decades. Prank calling 911 carries a gross misdemeanor charge, and people have used bogus bomb threats as a scare tactic in airports or to get out of that final exam they didn’t study for last night.

The difference between these practices and the more recent form is the targeted nature of the call. Swatting involves calling 911 on a specific person or address and sending the cops to whomever lives there. It first gained popularity as a bullying and pranking tactic in online gaming communities. When a player and their opponent are going head-to-head on Twitch or Mixer, that player can call in the fuzz and watch the cops bust down the door in real time.

People soon figured out that swatting could be combined with doxing, or revealing personal information online, to take down activists, writers, and speakers they didn’t like. This lethal combo exploded in popularity in an age of polarizing politics and a Hate Inc. style media climate. Some law enforcement officials estimate the practice has more than doubled in the past eight years, especially as payphones and burners have been replaced by smartphone apps and online services that allow callers to stay anonymous.

“It is a weaponization of the 911 system against innocent people,” said the Seattle Police Department’s Sargent Sean Whitcomb, who has served with the department for almost 25 years. “It has moved from video games and streaming to wanting to silence someone for what they say online. That’s a violation of one’s constitutional rights.”

Whitcomb told the Emerald it is not unusual for swatting to be motivated by racial hatred or bias. Oluo showed pictures of threats she had received not long before the fake call about gunshots at her home. The messages used several racial slurs and cited her writings on racism as the primary reason for her being targeted.

Law enforcement agencies have needed to craft responses to this rising trend, and Seattle has become a national leader in addressing this dangerous practice. Concern from community members prompted the department to create a system for distinguishing legitimate 911 calls from swatting hoaxes. The Seattle Police Department has implemented a three-tiered system to address the issue.

The first line of defense are the folks staffing the 911 call center. Through improved training and procedures, dispatchers can cross-check an address to see if it has previously been flagged as a target for swatting calls. The police department assures the public that this does not extend response time as the check is made while officers travel to the scene.

The second layer of anti-swatting policy is greater de-escalation training amongst patrol officers. Rather than kick down the door upon arrival, using a solutions-based approach ensures the safety of everyone involved while denying swatters the satisfaction of a successful hit.

“Swatters want to see officers entering homes with guns drawn. That would be a successful swatting. We want to prevent that.” Whitcomb said.

The third element of swatting prevention is the city’s digital database.

Originally, the city created the SMART 911 program to combat the practice. The third-party system allowed users to create a profile with their phone number and any medical conditions or caretaker information that officers needed to consider when responding to a call. Whenever a 911 call is made from a phone number registered with the database, dispatchers would gain access to the information in the account and could use it to advise officers on how to proceed.

But SMART 911 did not address the problem of anonymous calls. In addition, the service only parsed phone numbers and could not advise responders on the address they were heading to.

The next evolution came in the form of the Rave Facility database, which helped solve these issues. Rave Facility allowed people, such as social justice activists, live-streamers, prominent people of color, and others concerned about being targeted to register their address with local law enforcement. Similar to SMART 911, an address called in for a 911 response may be checked for swatting concerns while officers head to the scene. This was how Oluo was notified of the gunshot call to her home while boarding a plane on the other side of the country.

“I’m so glad that I had already spoken with the sheriff’s office a few weeks ago and let them know I had been doxxed and was a swatting risk,” Oluo wrote, “they knew to call me before sending an armed response.”

Despite the upgrade in tools officers can use to prevent injuries or deaths from fake calls, police departments are still neutered in the prosecutorial realm. Swatting is not recognized as a crime in most states or at the federal level. Most perpetrators are charged with the gross misdemeanor crime of misusing 911, a punishment that, according to the opinions of some officers like Whitcomb, may not match the harm done to victims. Tyler Barriss was not slapped with the act of swatting itself, among the 51 charges he received in his sentencing.

“It would be nice if we had better tools to seek justice against people who commit these crimes.” Whitcomb said. “It shouldn’t get to the point where someone is hurt or terrorized to get to that level of prosecution.”

Government officials are beginning to address this hole in the criminal justice system. United States Representative Katherine Clark (D-MA) has been leading the charge to make swatting a federal crime on the national level.

“[The goal is] to tailor a piece of legislation for this specific crime as we see swatting being used, unfortunately, more and more across the country and be able to really use our criminal statutes to address this particular crime that we’ve seen go from online abuse into real life with real consequences for people at home,” she said.

Clark herself was the victim of a swatting attack in 2016 not long after she first introduced such legislation into the United States House of Representatives.

Whitcomb agrees with Clark’s objective. “The online world has evolved.” He said. “We as public safety professionals need to evolve our business practices too.”