By T.B. Lefever:
From the Jerky Boys to Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers, prank phone calls are as American as apple pie. They can be a hilarious source of harmless entertainment when done properly, or they can be harassment when they get out of hand. Someone once called in a pizza to my address. When it arrived, I accepted it and paid the delivery guy. I was hungry and thought, “This must be my lucky day!” But sometimes, the calls can be something far worse. A dangerous type of prank calling I deal with as a hostage negotiator for a SWAT team is simply known as “swatting.”
“Swatting” is the act of phoning in a faux emergency to 911 that provokes a massive police response and activation of SWAT teams. Typically, “swatting” can involve a bomb threat, suicide threat, or the “reporting” of an act of terrorism, hostage situation, barricaded gunman, or active shooter. While prank calls are usually funny and benign, these calls can cause chaos, danger, and even death. Bomb threats can be disruptive to commerce and education when called in to our workplaces and schools, and they can present an entire host of threats to innocent bystanders. Fake threats divert 911 resources from real emergencies such as your grandmother falling down, your child going missing, your friend being robbed at gunpoint, or your wife getting into a car accident.
Throughout my career, I’ve been on scene to see both real and fake bomb threats, suicide threats, and active shooter events. When the 911 call is relayed from dispatch to street-level patrol officers, they are taken seriously. The first officer on scene is to set up a perimeter and wait for backup while dispatch stays on the line with the caller. As police, we are eager to help others, and you can bet we’re like flies to a lightbulb when these “hot calls” come in.
A major event can bring the 911 response machine to a grinding halt as radio airwaves are held for emergency traffic only, street-level resources are tied down, roadways are closed, etc. As officers and those in supervisory roles arrive on scene, a command post is set up and a decision is made on whether or not the threat is credible. It is around this time that SWAT operators and negotiators are activated and en route from places far and wide. A massive police response is always expected, as you can count on officers from surrounding agencies coming to get in on the action as well.
The most recent “swatting” incident I was out at caused all kinds of problems. I arrived about 20 minutes early to work that night. Just as I was pulling into the precinct parking lot, a call came over the radio advising of a caller claiming to have shot both his sister and mother and that he was suffering a psychotic episode. The first officer to arrive on scene was greeted with the sound of a gunshot. After getting to a place of safety, the officer advised dispatch of the situation and the cavalry was on their way. Imagine 20 or so patrol cars converging on an area at high speeds when they think their fellow officer is taking gunfire. Does your rush hour commute home from work sound like a safe affair under these conditions?
With this information relayed, SWAT was activated. I made it across town in record time and arrived on scene to see two dozen officers already out there from three different police agencies. The address given by the caller was a large white house in a nice part of town. I could hear an officer on a bullhorn giving commands for a woman seen in the window to open the front door and come outside. Moments later, a terrified mother holding her infant son came rushing out of her front door in the direction of quite a few heavily armed men and women.
I called the woman to me and ran her all the way up the street to my patrol car, where she sat down and explained that she had no idea what was going on. It turned out that the woman was home with only her baby and had nothing to do with the 911 call despite her address being given as the scene of a blood bath.
SWAT was yet to arrive on scene, but intel was being gathered on every household in the neighborhood in order for us to locate the threat. A small ranch at the end of the cul-de-sac became the new suspected location of the call, as officers determined that the gunshot heard had to have come from its direction. Eventually, we were able to make contact over the phone, but the person who answered was an 86-year-old Air Force veteran instead of a deranged 17-year-old who had just shot two people.
The old man had no idea what our lead negotiator was talking about in regards to a double shooting, but it turned out that a gunshot had in fact been fired from his residence. It just so happened that when someone important and “in the know” got wind of the massive police response to the neighborhood, they called the old man and told him to get his gun and lock the door to his home. The old man did just that, but also fired a round off into his bed when he grabbed his shotgun. I hope it wasn’t a Tempur-Pedic. Thank God no one was injured.
Another “swatting” incident involving my SWAT team made national headlines in 2014 when a father deplaning at the airport was greeted by television news reports of his wife and children having been shot at their home. Following an equally massive police response, the incident prompted a year-long investigation involving over a dozen local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The result? Two teenagers responsible for over 40 “swatting” incidents were tracked down and charged. They had been able to target homes, businesses, police departments, and even Disney World before finally being caught.
We, as a law enforcement community, are still behind the eight ball both in training and resources to combat “swatting” and other types of cybercrimes. In 2015, the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, which aims to make “swatting” a federal crime, was introduced by Massachusetts Congresswomen Katherine Clark. Most likely as an act of revenge, Clark herself then became a victim of “swatting” last January while at her home in New England. Following this personal attack on her home and family, Clark introduced the Cybercrime Enforcement Training Assistance Act, which would earmark 20 million dollars per year to training local law enforcement on how to investigate and prosecute cybercrime. Both bills remain under review.
Aside from people being subjected to unnecessary danger and inconvenience, there are several examples of victims of “swatting” being injured by first-responders. In 2015, a Maryland man was minding his own business in his apartment when SWAT arrived on scene. The incident ultimately ended with the man being shot in the face with a rubber bullet. We’ve got to be able to avoid incidents like these. In 2017, efforts are being made to improve the investigation of these crimes, and measures are being taken to deter them altogether.
T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.
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