They’re bogus 911 calls with real consequences — and public figures or celebrities are often the victims.
Last week, 18-year-old activist David Hogg and fellow #NeverAgain student leader Cameron Kasky were targeted by “swatting” calls, according to authorities in Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida. Both have emerged as activists after the Feb. 14 shooting that left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
Named after the response by police SWAT squads who respond to the calls, swatting often involves callers describing emergencies involving barricaded gunmen or hostages in an attempt to draw heavily armed officers. These fake 911 callers often make it appear as though a victim is placing the emergency call.
According to the FBI, which has issued warnings about swatting since 2008, there are approximately 400 such calls across the country annually.
And the consequences can be deadly. In December, an unsuspecting Wichita man was killed by police who came to his home to investigate a supposed homicide and a gunman holding victims at gunpoint. Authorities were called out to the home of 28-year-old Andrew Finch after a dispute between online gamers that prompted the fake 911 call to his address. The prankster, who placed the call from Los Angeles, gave police a wrong address, where Finch lived, that was unrelated to the gamers’ intended swatting target.
The suspected caller was apprehended and now faces manslaughter charges.
After Finch’s death, U.S. Rep. Ron Estes (R-Kan.) introduced a federal bill in March that would increase punishment for people caught swatting — a prison sentence of up to 20 years if someone is seriously hurt and up to life in prison if someone is killed.
In Parkland, there was no one at the Hogg home when deputies responded Tuesday morning. A 911 caller claimed he was armed inside the home with multiple weapons and had hurt people, Broward Sheriff’s spokeswoman Gina Carter said. The caller did not say David Hogg was among the supposed victims.
Similarly, in West Delray, authorities responded to the home of Jeffrey Kasky, father of #NeverAgain founder Cameron Kasky, who lives there part-time. Neither was home at the time. However, authorities say other relatives were.
The Kasky residence swatting incident happened Wednesday morning and authorities responded, but SWAT personnel remained on standby, according to Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Teri Barbera.
“The caller did claim that there was an incident there, someone had been stabbed, the person was armed, and that he was going to start shooting other people in the home,” she said.
Investigators were able to reach the Kaskys, who were surprised to learn of the swatting incident at their home, Barbera said.
Contacted by phone Friday, the elder Kasky said he and Cameron were on a flight to San Francisco and learned about the swatting call upon landing, after it had been resolved.
“Cameron is involved in an organization that is currently focused on registering young people to vote. I am involved in a separate organization that is currently involved in taking on NRA-backed candidates so we can for the first time in decades effect some real federal change in our gun laws,” he said. “There are people who make untold millions of dollars off of selling guns who feel threatened by Cameron and his team’s actions and by the actions that I’m undertaking with my group.”
Jeffrey Kasky’s organization, Families vs. Assault Rifles, was founded by him and other parents of Stoneman Douglas High students.
“My hope is that whoever it is that made these phone calls is themselves registered to vote and that they participate in the democratic process in the way it was intended, that they go to the ballot box and that they encourage other people,” Kasky said. “Whether they agree with what the students are doing or not, they should go out and vote. That’s what these people should do.”
Authorities did not indicate whether the hoaxes targeting Hogg and Kasky were connected, but they remain under investigation.
Hogg and Kasky are now well-known because of their activism, but most often celebrities are the targets of swatting.
In 2015, Miami Beach police were called out to the mansion of rapper Lil Wayne on a report that there were four murder victims inside his home. Police released the 911 call in which the male prankster says, in a monotone voice: “I just shot four people, killing whoever else I see. I don’t give a [expletive] if you’re a cop or not. I’m shooting to kill everyone.”
It drew out SWAT officers and hostage negotiation teams, and turned out to be a hoax, Miami Beach Police Officer Ernesto Rodriguez said.
“When we get these types of calls we can’t respond thinking they may be false. We have to respond and we have to allocate the resources as if the incident were true and people are in danger,” he said. “We have to investigate them all thoroughly and ensure there is no threat.”
Lil Wayne was again a swatting victim in 2016 and, that time, was in his Miami Beach mansion when police arrived.
Pesantes writes for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.