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Seattle police start anti-swatting program following fake 911 calls

Many folks might be nervous about registering their address with government authorities, such as police. But a growing threat known as “swatting” has led residents to reach out to the Seattle Police Department asking for a solution.

Seattle police think they have one.

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“The goal is to empower affected community members with a confidential way to share specific swatting concerns with our 911 center,” Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said. “Seattle police officers deserve to have the best information available as they respond to sensitive calls for service.”

In partnership with a third party, Seattle residents can preregister their address if they suspect they will be a target of swatting. If a call about their address comes into 911, officers will be made aware of potential swatting when they respond.

The issue has garnered headlines in recent years as the dangerous form of harassment has grown. This year, one online streamer in Kansas was shot and killed by police when someone reported a hostage situation at his address.

What is swatting?

In short, swatting is when a person reports a fake threat to 911 that requires a swift police response.

“Something that involves deadly violence, typically,” said Sergeant Sean Whitcomb with the Seattle Police Department. “Hence the term ‘swatting.’ They want a SWAT team to be sent to someone’s address, and that someone is the target and is unsuspecting of the police response.”

For example, in a recent video published by SPD, police can be seen responding to a home after someone called 911 to report that they had five hostages who would be killed if they didn’t get $5,000. Officers showed up with firearms ready.

It’s not a new form of harassment — it’s happened to celebrities, politicians, athletes, and other prominent figures in the past. But in recent years it’s become well-known among the video game community. Many gamers live-stream their playing and swatting could result in police showing up on camera as they swarm a home, ordering live streamers to the ground at gunpoint.

“In Seattle, of course, anyone associated with the tech industry, anyone associated specifically video game development, online content creation, online broadcasting — Twitch streamers, Mixer streamers, YouTube streamers — these are people who typically would be the target of swatting,” Whitcomb said.

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Most recently, Seattle police responded to two swatting incidents in August — one targeted at a public library in Seattle. A suspect in that case has been identified. Video from the other incident in August is featured on SPD’s video about swatting.

“(We respond to swatting) more than we should,” Whitcomb said. “There isn’t exact data to give you because swatting is not its own classification … I can tell you it is an area of concern for us as a police department — definitely an area of concern.”

A possible solution

Whitcomb said that the issue has grown in the Seattle area so much that members of the online streaming community began urging the department to come up with solution.

“We were approached earlier this summer about these concerns specifically,” Whitcomb said. “The person who approached us, and there have been others since then, asked if there was a way for them to register their address with us in the event a fantastical 911 call for service is made involving their address.”

Seattle police have partnered with a third party — Smart 911. People can create a profile using Smart 911’s Rave Facility program. The police department does not keep a database of personal information like addresses. Police will be notified that an address is registered for potential swatting if a 911 call is made to a residence.

James Feore with the Seattle Online Gamers Association said that the local gaming community is excited about the development with SPD. The association represents live streamers in the Seattle area who regularly, even professionally, broadcast content over the internet.

“Swatting is an issue that disproportionately affects the online broadcasting industry and video gaming community, and it has been a growing concern of ours for some time,” Feore said. “People in the Seattle area have already been the victim of swatting, and we’ve had SOBA members doxxed and receive death threats as recently as two weeks ago. Swatting is essentially just a numbers game, eventually someone gets hurt.”

Doxxed is when a person’s personal information is published online, such as their phone number, email, or physical address. That information can be used to further harass someone.

“Seeing SPD take this seriously as a public safety issue is enormously reassuring to us,” Feore said. “We hope that other police departments in the area look to Seattle and follow their lead. As one of the world’s leading regions for production of online broadcasting content, it’s important that regional leaders consider the safety of this industry and its members. As online broadcasting continues to grow, we can only expect to see harassment like swatting grow with it. It’s important that police departments act proactively to reduce the risk of swatting.”

Instructions on how to register with Smart 911 can be found on SPD’s PSA about the swatting.

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