One way to stop policemen from mistakenly killing innocent people

Disclaimer: I am a retired law enforcement agent.

Incidents involving "swatting" — i.e., someone making a false 911 call to a police agency claiming that a violent crime is in progress at a specific location, with the caller's intent being to cause the police to respond to that address to disrupt, annoy, or kill the inhabitant of that location — are increasing.  Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene and podcaster Tim Pool have both been swatted repeatedly this year, for political reasons.

Swatting is no joke.  In 2017 a professional "swatter" named Tyler Barriss called the Wichita Kansas Police Department and reported a violent murder incident.  Barriss made the call via a communications method known as Voice Over IP (Internet Protocol); this is basically making a voice telephone call using a computer instead of a hard line or cellular telephone.  VOIP is almost totally anonymous, since it is very difficult to trace the location of the call.  In fact, Barriss made the call from a Los Angeles library, at the request of an internet gamer who thought he was getting the police to "swat" a rival gamer's residence.

The rival gamer did not in fact live at the residence that Barriss reported to the Wichita Police; Wichita P.D. sent a SWAT team to the residence, and an officer shot and killed Andrew Finch, the occupant, when he emerged from the residence to go to work.  Finch, a father of two, was unarmed.

Police departments have been terribly remiss in not establishing protocols to detect swatting.  Yes, the swatter is ultimately responsible for the crime.  However, police departments have had plenty of time to safeguard against swatting calls.

I have conducted many court-ordered wiretaps of criminal organizations.  It is entirely possible to ascertain whether a voice phone call is from a hard-line telephone (used almost exclusively by businesses now), a cellular telephone, or VOIP.  Police departments should have already employed this technology in their 911 dispatch communications centers to detect VOIP calls; VOIP calls should be subjected to intense scrutiny before dispatching officers to an address, since it is very unlikely that a true emergency would be reported by someone via a computer.  Dispatchers should ask callers using VOIP questions as to why they are using VOIP to report an emergency and for a cellular telephone call-back number.

Additionally, dispatchers should attempt to contact the occupants of the residence where the emergency is being reported; virtually all police departments have phone numbers for water billing subscribers for city residences on hand (most municipal or county entities provide police and water services).  It is easy to call the residence, using the phone number on file for water services, and ask if there is in fact an emergency.  This should be protocol for SWAT teams anyway, since they usually send a negotiator to make contact with those inside the residence.

Even for regular telephone emergency calls, police dispatchers should attempt to call the residence where the emergency is supposedly occurring.  Take the tragic example of Atatiana Jefferson in Fort Worth, TX in 2019.  A caller (not a "swatter") who was genuinely concerned that Ms. Jefferson's residence door was left open called Fort Worth P.D. and made a report over a non-emergency contact number.  The dispatcher sent two uniformed police officers to the residence to investigate.  One of the officers approached the residence, saw a figure in a window that appeared to have a gun (Ms. Jefferson did in fact retrieve a gun when she saw someone outside the residence — a very reasonable act), and shot and killed Ms. Jefferson.  The officer resigned and is being charged for homicide; the case is currently pending trial.  Had the dispatcher asked the caller who made the report if he had a phone number for the occupants of the residence, or had the dispatcher called the residence using the water billing contact telephone number, this tragedy might have been averted.

It is time to demand that law enforcement agencies set up safeguards to prevent swatting before more tragedies occur.

Image via Pxhere.

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