The calls started without warning. Every line on every phone in the Compton sheriff’s station lighted up at once, hundreds of calls pouring in for hours.
One sheriff’s official compared the scene to the aftermath of a major earthquake or a mass shooting. But the cause of the deluge wasn’t violence or natural disaster.
It was Twitter.
At 5:23 p.m. Friday, the Twitter feed for Compton rapper The Game posted a message encouraging his 580,000 followers to call the posted number if they wanted an internship. The tweet, which officials are saying might result in criminal charges, gave no indication that the phone number was in fact the official help line for the Compton sheriff’s station.
“It was almost like a symphony of misery. You’ve got a multitude of phones ringing simultaneously,” said headquarters bureau Capt. Mike Parker.
Many of the initial callers hung up when they heard the standard station greeting: “Compton sheriff’s station, may I help you?” Deputies figured the station lines were faulty and even called the phone company for help. But some callers were insistent even after hearing law enforcement on the line: “Hey I’d like to get the music internship.”
“That’s when we put two and two together,” Parker said. The captain, an avid Twitter user himself, said he got calls from the Compton station saying “Help us please, please make it stop.” He logged onto Twitter and sent a message to The Game, asking him to take down the post.
After a lengthy delay, the number came down sometime before midnight. But the rapper, whose real name is Jayceon Terrell Taylor, seemed less than apologetic.
He retweeted a Times article about the prank, and then blamed the stunt on a friend, warning the alleged Tweeter: “you betta sleep wit jeans on tonite homie…..Sheriffs come knockin’ don’t be in ya pajamas.”
The musician, who has expressed anti-police sentiments in his lyrics, also mocked the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department on Twitter: “Yall can track a tweet down but cant solve murders ! Dat was an accident but maybe now yall can actually do yall job.” Homicides, while still high relative to other parts of the county, have dropped dramatically in Compton in recent years.
Sheriff’s officials aren’t laughing about what they’re calling a phone flash mob. When asked about the rapper’s public taunts, Parker said, “I’m biting my tongue.”
The number the rapper tweeted, Parker said, may have not been the 911 line, but the station help desk regularly fields emergency calls. During the roughly three-hour deluge, deputies took legitimate calls about a missing person, a spousal abuse incident, two robberies and a stolen vehicle, Parker said.
While the calls were coming, deputies began trying to physically locate the rapper, checking law enforcement databases for his addresses and those of his associates. Before they got to knocking on doors, however, the calls died down and deputies shifted their focus to preparing a criminal complaint to present to prosecutors.
Among the potential charges, Parker said, are annoying or harassing phone calls via electronic device or the Internet whether or not a conversation ensues, delaying or obstructing a peace officer in the performance of their duties, and disrupting or impeding communication over a public safety radio frequency.
“Each phone call made does open the possibility for an additional charge,” Parker said.
Compton councilwoman Janna Zurita, who grew up around the corner from The Game’s father, floated a more traditional approach for dealing with the rapper’s antics.
“He’s a guy who has done well for this community so I would hate to malign him, but as with young children when they do something wrong, you have to spank them,” she said. “Maybe he’s become too far removed from the community. We have to invite him back and let him know that’s not OK.”
Attempts to reach the rapper were unsuccessful.
It’s unclear if the tweets will meet the burden for criminal charges.
“I understand and feel the sheriff’s pain but they have a pesky problem called the 1st Amendment,” said defense attorney Mark Geragos. “I can’t imagine the D.A. would file anything. It’s not like The Game was yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater…the Compton sheriff’s station is not 911.”
Law enforcement agencies across the nation are grappling with the effects of social media. Last month, a rave disc jockey sent a Twitter message telling his followers to come to a concert in Hollywood celebrating the release of a movie. His tweet brought hundreds to Hollywood Boulevard, creating a near-riot that led to arrests and potential charges against the event’s organizers.
For the rapper, this isn’t his first run-in with the law. In 2008, he was convicted on a felony firearm charge after pointing a gun at another player during a pickup basketball game in South Los Angeles. An argument broke out and he punched an opposing player, then pulled a gun from his Cadillac Escalade and threatened to fire.
The Game has had run-ins with social media as well. The rapper’s “street cred” was challenged when a video went viral showing him, before he was famous, on the kitschy TV dating show “Change of Heart.” The videos drew thousands of hits, and are still used to challenge his tough-guy rep (his girlfriend on the reality show picked another man).
Deputies have yet to make contact with the rapper, however Parker said “he would be very well inclined to call us.”
“We’re still waiting for a Twitter message with an apology or a retraction or ‘this was bad idea,’ ” Parker said. “We’re waiting for something that sends a message out that people’s lives are more important than playing around.”