It had been a quiet Sunday evening in January 2016 when Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) noticed police lights streaming through her window.
Curious to see if a neighbor needed help, she peeked out her front door ― coming face to face with a handful of officers on her front lawn, pointing long guns right at her.
The congresswoman had just been “swatted,” or subjected to a malicious act in which a person hides their identity, then calls the cops and reports a violent crime at the address of whomever they’re targeting.
Believing these false alarms to be real, officers often respond forcefully with some combination of SWAT teams, guns and helicopters. In Clark’s case, the situation was resolved peacefully as one big misunderstanding. Similarly, this week, someone swatted David Hogg, the Parkland school shooting survivor and gun control advocate. Fortunately, he was not home.
But in worst-case swatting incidents, police shoot innocent people to death. Last December, officers shot and killed an unarmed 28-year-old man on his front doorstep after receiving a call that he’d shot his father in the head and was holding his mother and two siblings hostage.
He’d done nothing of the sort. The Wichita, Kansas, resident’s fatal mistake was living at an address that a “Call of Duty” gamer had fabricated and posted online during an escalating argument with a fellow gamer.
Los Angeles police arrested Tyler Barriss for the swatting attack the next day. The 25-year-old lived in California and had called police in Wichita from some 1,500 miles away.
Barriss’ arrest, however, is an anomaly. Tracking down and arresting a swatter is often a difficult, costly endeavor, requiring investigators to cross local, state and international borders alike in search of call logs on servers. For that reason, arrests are infrequent.
“These are sophisticated players, and they know how to cover their tracks through technology,” Clark told HuffPost. Whoever sent the police to her door was never held responsible.
These are sophisticated players, and they know how to cover their tracks through technology. Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.)
Clark suspects she was attacked because of legislation she introduced in 2015 that aims to facilitate finding and holding swatters accountable. “The timing seems very coincidental,” she noted, acknowledging, “we have no idea who the person was or what their true motive was.”
Clark’s bill, the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, got stuck in a subcommittee. But the lawmaker believes high-profile swatting attacks, like the one on Hogg, and growing public awareness might be just enough to spur Congress to take action.
“What we’re trying to do with this legislation is really design and update our criminal laws to reflect some of the new, very threatening tools of harassment that we’re seeing online,” Clark said. While calling in things like bomb threats and terrorist attacks is illegal, federal law doesn’t currently explicitly mention falsely reporting other emergency situations.
Her bill would close that loophole.
“Instead of trying to fit swatting into false threats, or false police reports, or looking at even terrorism statutes, we try to make a bill that shows exactly the elements of this crime and that you have to knowingly make a false or misleading report, and then the penalties escalate with the harm that results,” Clark explained.
Her bill also includes a provision to help local police departments recoup the costs of responding to a swatting attack, which can regularly stretch into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. In 2014, one attack in Long Beach, New York, cost law enforcement agencies in the area an estimated $100,000. A 2015 attack in Colorado cost $25,000. With a frequency of around 400 swatting attacks a year, according to the FBI, that adds up.
“Swatting is becoming more common across the country,” Clark said. “What happened to me, unfortunately, happens to many victims and families around the country and jumps out of harassment online and in the virtual world and really impacts security and safety in the real world.”