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…