Since at least 2008, malicious pranksters have engaged in a practice known as “swatting.” In the prank, a person makes a call to police and feeds the dispatcher a story about having a bomb, confesses to killing someone and taking hostages, or some other serious incident that requires the local SWAT team’s assistance. Providing the dispatcher with their target’s address, police, taking the bogus call seriously, arrive at the target’s home with guns raised and ready to shoot to kill, believing the person inside is a danger to themselves and others. Beginning with live stream online gamers, the practice has since grown in popularity and is most often used as a means to exact revenge on individuals the prankster had been involved in an online dispute with.
Since its beginnings in the online gaming community, the practice has since branched out and celebrities including Justin Beiber, Lil Wayne, Chris Brown, and at least a dozen others have been the victims of the so-called prank. Law enforcement and others who had been following these incidents noted the potential danger of these pranks as well as the strain on resources they place on the overall community they occur in.
In 2009, the FBI was able to track down a “serial swatter” identified as 19-year-old Matthew Weigman. According to their report, Weigman, along with nine other co-conspirators, were able to use social engineering and other scams to not only impersonate and harass telecommunication employees but use the personal information they collected on their victims to carry out dozens of swatting incidents between 2004 and his arrest in 2009. Weigman was sentenced to serve out 11 years in federal prison.
In spite of the serious consequences faced by those who are caught swatting and high-profile members of the gaming community speaking out against the practice, it is a “prank” that still continues to go on today. While there have been several incidents where the victim was nearly killed by police attempting to apprehend what they believed was a violent and dangerous suspect, most notably a 2013 incident where a man was nearly killed when confronting police, who he believed to be intruders, with a knife during the confusion, it was only a matter of time before someone paid the ultimate price for these pranks.
Now, after nearly a decade since the prank took root, police have admitted they killed an unarmed man by mistake while responding to what they later concluded was a swatting incident.
Wichita, Kansas police received a phone call from a man claiming he had shot his father during a dispute and had been holding the rest of his family hostage, telling the dispatcher he had poured gasoline all over the house and threatened to set the home on fire. Police, believing a family was in danger, responded to the call. Arriving at the address given to them by the caller, a man opened the door to find police standing outside. Police asked the man to put his hands up, instead, police say the man reached towards his waist and one of the officers opened fire, killing the suspect.
In what normally would have been a situation where police were doing what they had to do in order to protect themselves and save a family being held hostage, instead, left a black mark on the Wichita Police upon learning that not only was the call a hoax, but the man they shot was not even the prankster’s intended target.
In what’s been alleged to have begun as an online dispute between two gamers, LA police say they have arrested the man they believe to have been behind the phone call. 25-year-old Tyler Barriss is currently in police custody awaiting bail. Engadget reports that Barriss was connected to the call after he discussed the incident in a series of now-deleted tweets and may have called in to further discuss the case on a YouTube talk show.
This isn’t the first time Barriss has been accused of staging these type of hoaxes. In 2015, the LA Times reports that Barriss was arrested and charged for calling in a bomb threat to KABC Studios. Engadget reports that Barriss also may have been connected to another series of bomb hoaxes in Dallas which interrupted a Call of Duty championship.
While Wichita Police are placing the blame for the shooting incident squarely on Barriss, the family of the man shot, identified by his mother as Andrew Finch, say police need to take responsibility for their reaction to the situation.
According to a report published in the Wichita Eagle, Finch’s mother says Finch was unarmed when he came to the door investigating “suspicous noises” he heard outside of the home. When he opened the front door he heard yelling by officers to put his hands up, followed by the gunshot that would end the father of two’s life. His family reports that Finch did not play video games and it is suspected that Barriss had mistakenly given police Finch’s address, rather than his intended victim’s.
In another report from the New York Times, Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum says that many departments across the country do undergo training in order to identify these malicious hoaxes. On the night of Finch’s death, the caller initially dialed the number to Wichita’s City Hall, rather than the police, indicating that there was a possibility that the caller had not been local and should have set off red flags to the department.
The officer who has been alleged to have fired the deadly shot that killed Finch has been placed on administrative leave as Wichita Police continue their investigation into the incident. The Wichita police union has since expressed their deepest condolences to Finch’s family and stated that “officers must make split-second decisions using the information at hand,” further going on to say that this case should highlight how swatting needlessly endangers people’s lives.