Editorial: Swatting is unconscionable. That doesn’t mean we need a federal law against it
All 2017 had to do was go away quietly, but no. It left us a nasty New Year’s gift: “Swatting” is now officially a thing, with an innocent Wichita man shot dead by police in his own home a week ago for opening his front door, and an apparently callous Los Angeles gamer in jail pending his transfer to Kansas sometime in the next month.
You may count yourself lucky if you had never heard of swatting before this week. As most of the internet-using, television-watching nation now knows, though, the term describes the practice of calling 911 with a phony story of violence in order to mobilize an armed police SWAT team. The prankster can then watch the mayhem unfold online or on TV from the comfort of home. Some hoaxers have used swatting to harass celebrities, and there was a spate of such attacks in Los Angeles — on Rihanna, P. Diddy, Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher and others — in 2013. But it has also become a practice in a very narrow slice of the gaming community, where players target each other or random, innocent people.
Of course, the attack is also on police. And police, being attacked, sometimes become the attackers.
In the case at hand, Tyler Raj Barriss, 25, is accused of making the fake emergency call that named an address in Wichita. Online news reports include the audio recording in which a man tells a dispatcher that he had killed his father, was holding his mother and brother or sister at gunpoint, and was threatening to burn the house down.
You may count yourself lucky if you had never heard of swatting before this week.
In response, police surrounded the home of 28-year-old Andrew Finch, a father of two. When Finch answered the door, an officer shot him, apparently because he thought Finch was reaching for a weapon.
For those who thrive on outrage, this story is a treasure chest. Pick your target — the self-absorbed gamer who makes fake calls for jollies, the Wichita cop who shot an unarmed man who had done nothing wrong, the police department for whatever deficiencies in training led the officer to pull the trigger. There ought to be a law, right?
In fact, there are already laws against making false police calls, and beyond criminal penalties, hoaxers can be held liable to cities for the costs their calls incurred.
U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, is calling for more. Last year she introduced the Online Safety Modernization Act, which would impose new penalties — up to 20 years for a hoax call that results in serious bodily injury, up to life in prison for one that results in death.
Now wait a minute. Life in prison?
It is sadly all too common for lawmakers and the public generally to respond to high-profile crimes with demands for new laws or tougher sentences, the belief apparently being that some sociopath for whom law, right and wrong have no meaning will suddenly pay attention when the penalty is upped.
In a recent NPR interview, Clark argued that federal laws are needed because incidents like the one that led to Finch’s death occur across state lines. And indeed there will be some delay in getting Barriss from Los Angeles to Wichita, and there will be some questions about which laws in which jurisdiction apply.
But Barriss will in fact be sent to Wichita. And the courts will determine which law to apply. A new federal law, and new life sentences, are not likely to dissuade future prank calls.
What will? If criminal pranksters are like other criminals, studies show they are more likely to be deterred by the would-be offender’s knowledge that he will be caught swiftly than by any lengthening of the sentence. There were just a few hours between the alleged call and Barriss’ arrest.
But what about the other matter? Surely a man ought to be able to open his door without being shot dead by police, no matter how much bad information has been fed them by cold-hearted hoaxers. In cases like this there is often pressure to criminally charge the officer, but it would be precipitous to call for such action in this particular case, or to demand new laws, before knowing more. Did the officers fail to identify themselves, as Finch’s mother claims? We anxiously await a full report on what the police did to verify the veracity of the call, and on the training and tactics employed.
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