Salt Lake police officers mobilized to a Poplar Grove neighborhood last year after receiving a call about a shooting and possible hostage situation.
Upon arrival, the police determined that there were no injuries and no hostage situation. The incident occurred on April 6, 2023.
“Our police officers performed as we expected to keep everyone safe,” Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in a press release. “These unfounded calls pose significant dangers to our officers and the community. I would like to thank the women and men of the Salt Lake City Police Department. Our graveyard patrol officers from across the city handled this incident with professionalism and great care to ensure their safety and the safety of those in the neighborhood. These are dynamic situations that can result in significant consequences if their caller is identified.”
The Salt Lake City Police Department called it a “swatting incident.”
Swatting is a false emergency report where “someone places either a 911 call or nonemergency call into a law enforcement dispatch center and makes a false report about a critical incident,” according to the Salt Lake City Police Department.
Law enforcement consider these calls as real and divert resources toward the calls.
The Poplar Grove incident was not the only time swatting happened in Utah last year. Across 13 different schools in the state, there were reports of an active shooter, according to KSL-TV. There was no gunman at any of those schools.
On the day last March when reports came that there was an active shooter at Spanish Fork High School, Spanish Fork Police Chief Matt Johnson said that 75 officers responded to the call for a total of around 400 employee hours, per KSL-TV. And the costs are not just in manpower, as there is significant emotional cost to the community as well.
“You not only have the costs associated with mobilizing and deploying special teams, SWAT, bomb techs and things of that nature,” Cheyvoryea Gibson, acting special agent in charge for the FBI in Salt Lake City, said. “But more importantly, you have the emotional toll that it takes on the community, the parents.”
In recent weeks, there’s been an increased amount of media attention on swatting. Politicians from both sides of the aisle, including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and New York Rep. Brandon Williams, have been victims of swatting. Here’s a closer look at what swatting is and the public safety risks around it.
What is swatting?
Swatting is a false emergency report of a serious criminal threat.
False emergency reports are when a person makes a call to an emergency line (911) or a law enforcement dispatch and makes a false report of “a situation in which property or human life is in jeopardy and the prompt summoning of aid is essential to the preservation of human life or property,” according to the Utah Criminal Code.
These kinds of calls can be misdemeanors or second or third degree felonies depending on factors such as whether or not the emergency alleged “currently involves, or involves an imminent threat of, serious bodily injury, serious physical injury, or death” or if the call “reports an emergency or causes an emergency to be reported to any public, private, or volunteer entity whose purpose is to respond to fire, police, or medical emergencies, when the actor knows the reported emergency does not exist.”
Swatting tends to involve reports of serious crimes.
It “involves people making fraudulent 911 calls reporting serious-level criminal threats or violent situations like bomb threats, hostages, killing, etc. to fool the police into raiding the house or business of somebody who is not actually committing a crime,” security expert Lauren R. Shapiro told NBC News. These incidents have historically not been tracked annually (the FBI started a database in 2023), but it’s estimated that around 1,000 occur each year.
Leading up to the FBI creating a tracking database last year, “police had for months reported a huge surge in fake claims about active shooters at schools and colleges,” The Associated Press reported.
It was 2008 when the FBI put out a release about the “new, much more serious twist” on “phone phreakers,” calling the crime “swatting.”
“The community is placed in danger as responders rush to the scene, taking them away from real emergencies. And the officers are placed in danger as unsuspecting residents may try to defend themselves,” the FBI said about swatting.
When law enforcement receives a call about a potential crime in progress, they have to respond and take it seriously.
“We don’t get the luxury to say, ‘Oh, that’s a swatting call,’” Brown told KSL-TV. “We have to respond as if that’s real-time happening.”
Police departments have a limited number of people who can immediately respond to a call. Fake calls may divert their resources away from calls that need their attention.
These sorts of incidents can also be costly.
“Following a swatting in Rochester, New York, Lieutenant Aaron Springer estimated the incident cost at up to $15,000. In Denver, a 2015 swatting cost law enforcement $25,000, while an incident in Long Beach, New York is estimated to have cost $100,000 in 2014,” the Anti-Defamation League said. “These online threats are serious; they can and have led to violence. Swatting puts the targets, responding officers, and other community members in harm’s way and sometimes results in their deaths.”
Technological advances have made swatting calls harder to detect as they are happening.
With technology that can produce what a realistic voice would sound like, the ability to use websites to determine the geographical surrounding of a particular location, and advancements with hiding location and phone number, some experts believe swatting may have become easier.
“The ease of which someone can hide themselves behind some aspects of technology makes it sometimes easier for the task to be done,” Don Maue, director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Media at Duquesne University, told ABC News.
To put it into perspective, advances can allow a person to use artificial intelligence to produce the sound of a voice that is not theirs. And with software available to make it seem like a person is in a different location than they actually are, the sophistication of the technology can make it hard to detect and to track.
Swatting has also led to physical harm.
In connection to police receiving a 911 call that led them to believe there was a shooting and hostage situation, a man by the name of Andrew Finch died.
“Police responded, believing they were dealing with a man who had shot his own father and was holding family members hostage,” the United States Attorney’s Office in the District of Kansas said in a press release. “Andrew Finch, who lived at the address, did not know why police were at his home when he stepped onto the porch. When Finch made a move that startled officers, he was shot and killed.”
“Swatting, and soliciting others to swat someone, are more than foolish,” U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister said in the press release. “Such actions are reckless, dangerous and, as this case proves, potentially tragic.”
How to mitigate swatting
One of the areas experts have pointed toward when it comes to mitigating or preventing swatting is changing the way that it is prosecuted.
There’s no federal law specifically against swatting, even though there are other laws that can be used to prosecute it.
“Without a statute in place, there’s no designated resources or training for investigating swatting incidents,” Shapiro said to NBC News. “And the 911 dispatchers do not have the resources and training they need to differentiate between actual emergencies and false reports.”
One of the ways swatting can occur is via smart devices. According to the FBI, sometimes offenders will use stolen passwords to log into smart devices in people’s homes and make it seem like the victim is the one making the phone call to law enforcement. When law enforcement responds, the offender can watch what happens through live stream footage from these smart devices.
The FBI recommends that people use complex passwords and multifactor authentication on accounts and devices in addition to avoiding duplicate passwords and practicing “good cyber hygiene.”
While technology can make swatting easier, technology might also be able to help law enforcement determine if they are receiving a fake call.
“We’re very optimistic that we’re going to get to that point one day in the very near future,” Gibson told KSL-TV. “But again, we’re constantly playing catch up with ever-changing technical landscape.”