By STEPHAN BISAHA
The Wichita Police Department says the fatal police shooting that killed a man in late December started with a prank phone call, commonly referred to as swatting.
In swatting cases, callers utilize technology to make 911 calls appear local—also known as spoofing—and then report a false emergency at a victim’s home to get a strong police and SWAT team response, which is where the term gets its name. The harassment is often associated with the dark corners of online gaming.
Tyler Barriss, 25, is being charged with making the false alarm call and has been extradited to Kansas to face the charges. Andrew Finch, 28, was killed shortly after police arrived at his house. It’s believed the incident started with an online video game dispute, though Finch’s address was targeted by mistake.
Police in Wichita received no training in dealing with swatting, or prank 911 calls, prior to the fatal shooting. The same is true in many police departments across the country, says Thor Eells, the executive director of the National Tactical Officers Association and the former head of Colorado Springs’ SWAT team.
He spoke with KMUW’s Stephan Bisaha about swatting and what goes through the mind of an officer when he or she responds to a hostage situation. The full interview is above.
Stephan Bisaha: There have been talks about this phenomenon of swatting growing lately with more technology, such as spoofing, and with the online gaming community. Is this something you’re seeing?
Thor Eells: We did for a period. I would say roughly two to three years ago we had a dramatic increase in swatting incidents. There was a much higher sense of awareness regarding swatting. And then, for unknown reasons, it seemed to slow down. We didn’t have the frequency of the incidents, but we’re now starting to see a resurgence of it again, and the tragedy that occurred in Wichita has drawn greater attention to the problem.
Is there a sense why this is so prevalent among the online gaming community?
I don’t think we have a really good answer to that. I think the speculative answer is just the technology in that respective community allows for that to take place. … It’s not that gamers are more prone to do this, but those that are prone to do this have that technological savviness, if you will.
Beyond a tragic situation like we had in Wichita, what are the costs associated with a case like swatting?
Well, it varies. It’s not inexpensive—it’s certainly not cheap—when an agency responds to a potential hostage situation such as what was portrayed there in the Wichita incident. You’re going to have a significant patrol response, which are the normal officers that are out handling the day-to-day. You’ll have a significant number of them responding to the scene to initially contain it and start to stabilize it. And then subsequently there will be an activation of other specialized units, which could be K-9, crisis negotiations, a SWAT team and other assets that a supervisor believes are necessary to resolve the situation as peacefully as possible. And given that most teams in America—SWAT teams—are not full-time teams there is a lot of overtime involved, a lot of expense. So it’s not inexpensive by any means.
Besides the monetary costs and the man-hour costs, are there any other costs for how this affects law enforcement and the communities?
I think the most obvious fallout from a swatting incident is the difficulty that it presents to the community and law enforcement—in what do you take seriously and what do you not and how do you handle that? And if you continue to respond to too many incidents, it’s the “Chicken Little” or the “boy crying wolf” kind of problem. At some point, do people become somewhat immune or anesthetized to the problem and the dynamics that are involved?
Swatting is a very, very dangerous phenomenon. You know, it’s the latest technological advancement of a 911 hangup where you call in something to see lights and sirens, and there is a tragic accident involving a fire truck or an ambulance or a police car. The same potential for tragedy exists. It’s just accomplished through a different medium.
So this was happening before the technology in swatting became a big phenomenon, these false emergencies?
Yes. I mean false alarms have been in existence probably, you know, since phones were developed. If you pull a fire alarm, fire department is going to respond. If you call in a hostage situation, the police department is going to respond. I mean there is no alternative. It’s going to generate a response because the potential for lives being at risk is too great to ignore.
In Wichita, we were told the police did not receive any training regarding how to deal with swatting. Is that common in police departments across the country?
Yes. Very common.
So most police departments don’t have much training with this?
No, and I don’t know that there’s really much training that can be provided to it other than an awareness that the phenomenon is occurring. But an officer in an agency that’s responding to this type of call because of the life safety issue has very little options other than to treat it as true until proven otherwise.
So if there’s not much that can be done besides making officers aware that the phenomenon does exist, what can be done about this, be it through laws or public awareness or anything?
I think it’s a combination of all that you just mentioned. I think there certainly does need to be a more concerted effort to educate communities—the public—that swatting is, one, occurring. And then secondarily, I think what needs to happen is a very aggressive and vigorous prosecution of the individual that created this incredibly tragic situation—completely unavoidable and for what? And there has to be some degree of personal responsibility attached to it and accountability for the action of the individual who created that scenario.
You have been in charge and led SWAT teams before, from my understanding. Can you put me in the mind of an officer who’s responding to a scenario like this where they’ve received a call that there’s someone with a weapon on the scene, there has been a fatality and there are hostages?
Yeah. That is the worst possible scenario. That is the scenario that, while officers train for it, they hope and pray they never respond to it because there is nothing more dangerous to the officer—but also to the innocent people—than a hostage rescue. There is no margin of error in that, and the officers know that. And the pressure and the stress that’s generated from that is tremendous.
Stephan Bisaha is the education reporter for KMUW, a partner with the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.