NATIONAL NEWS

How recent ‘swatting’ calls targeting officials may prompt heavier penalties for hoax police calls

Dec 29, 2023, 8:53 AM

ATLANTA (AP) — A spate of false reports of shootings at the homes of public officials in recent days could be setting the stage for stricter penalties against so-called swatting in more states.

U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, Georgia U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost have been among the victims.

Several Georgia lawmakers targeted say they want increased penalties for swatting, like laws enacted this year in Ohio and Virginia. Similar bills are pending in other states and Congress.

Here’s a look at the issue and what could be done about it:

WHAT IS ‘SWATTING’?

Swatting is the act of making a prank call to emergency services to prompt a response at a particular address. The goal is to get authorities, particularly a SWAT team, to show up.

Calls in multiple states in recent days featured the voice of a man calling himself “Jamal,” claiming he had shot his wife because she was sleeping with another man and saying he was holding the boyfriend hostage, demanding $10,000.

Two Ohio lawmakers said they thought they were targeted recently for helping pass a law making swatting a felony in the state.

Georgia state Sen. Clint Dixon said the incident at his house in Buford on Christmas evening was “quite startling” for himself, his wife and three children.

“I was watching a little football and my wife was upstairs packing for a trip, and all of a sudden, I heard her, you know, start yelling, ‘There’s police running at the door.’ She saw on our Ring doorbell,” he told WABE.

WHO’S BEEN TARGETED RECENTLY?

A man in New York called the Georgia suicide hotline just before 11 a.m. Monday, claiming that he had shot his girlfriend at Greene’s home in Rome, Georgia, and was going to kill himself next, said Kelly Madden, the Rome police spokesperson. The call was quickly transferred to police when suicide hotline responders recognized the congresswoman’s address.

The department said it contacted Greene’s private security detail to confirm she was safe and that there was no emergency. The call was then determined to be a swatting attempt so the response was canceled while police were on the way. Greene has been the subject of multiple swatting attempts.

Scott wrote on X that police were sent to his home in Naples, Florida, while he and his wife were out at dinner on Wednesday night. Police said they met Scott’s private security service at the home, but didn’t find anything out of place.

“These criminals wasted the time & resources of our law enforcement in a sick attempt to terrorize my family,” Scott wrote.

In Boston, a male caller claimed on Monday that he had shot his wife and had tied her and another man up at Wu’s home. The Democratic mayor said she was surprised to open the door and see flashing lights, but said her home has been targeted by multiple swatting calls since she took office in 2021.

“For better or worse, my family are a bit used to it by now, and we have a good system with the department,” Wu told WBUR.

Also targeted have been a Republican congressman from New York, Georgia’s lieutenant governor and a former state senator in Nebraska. Dixon was among four Georgia state senators who were recently swatted. In Ohio, a total of three current or former state lawmakers were affected.

HOW WIDESPREAD IS THE PROBLEM?

Hundreds of cases of swatting occur annually, with some using caller ID spoofing to disguise their number. And those targeted extend far beyond public officials.

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, told KETV-TV that they had handled three swatting calls in the same 48-hour period in which they went to the unoccupied home of former state Sen. Adam Morfeld.

The FBI said earlier this year that it had created a national database in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies to track swatting incidents nationwide. Police had for months reported a huge surge in fake claims about active shooters at schools and colleges. There have also been reports of hundreds of swatting incidents and bomb threats against synagogues and other Jewish institutions since the Israel-Hamas war began.

The Anti-Defamation League estimates that by 2019 there were more than 1,000 incidents of swatting nationwide each year. That group says each incident can costs taxpayers thousands of dollars in emergency response costs.

DO FALSE THREATS POSE OTHER RISKS?

Such calls have proven dangerous and even outright deadly.

In 2017, a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, shot and killed a man while responding to a hoax emergency call. Earlier this year, the city agreed to pay $5 million to settle a related lawsuit, with the money to go to the two children of 28-year-old Andrew Finch.

In 2015, police in Maryland shot a 20-year-old man in the face with rubber bullets after a fake hostage situation was reported at his home.

In addition to putting innocent people at risk, police and officials say they worry about diverting resources from real emergencies.

WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE COULD THIS PROMPT?

Police are investigating the recent threats. No arrests have yet been reported.

Ohio earlier this year made it a felony offense to report a false emergency that prompts response by law enforcement. And Virginia increased the penalties for swatting to up to 12 months in jail.

Dixon, the Georgia state senator, said in a statement he planned to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session to strengthen penalties for false reporting and misuse of police forces.

“This issue goes beyond politics — it’s about public safety and preserving the integrity of our institutions,” he said.

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How recent ‘swatting’ calls targeting officials may prompt heavier penalties for hoax police calls