EDITORIAL: The burden falls on SWAT teams to smell out deadly hoaxes

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This Dec. 29, 2017 photo shows Lisa Finch, surrounded by family members reacting to the killing of her son Andrew Finch after he was shot by police, in Wichita, Kansas. (Bo Rader /The Wichita Eagle via AP)

As if the police didn’t have enough to worry about.

Vile people with increasingly sophisticated tech skills now are “swatting,” reporting false crises to the police with the hopes heavily armed cops will swarm over an innocent victim’s home, terrorizing and perhaps mistakenly harming the occupants.

EDITORIAL

Anonymous callers have been swatting people they don’t like for at least a decade, but late last month the dangerous trick resulted in its first known fatality as police in Wichita, Kansas, shot to death an unsuspecting 28-year-old father of two after he opened his front door.

There has been only one swatting incident in the Chicago area that we know of — in Naperville — but the danger is real and apparently growing. Police forces across the country are being asked to reconsider how they respond to calls of potential violence. A Chicago Police spokesman assured us that the city’s SWAT teams train “almost daily” and consider the “confirmation of viable threats” to be “paramount.”

Swatters have been know to use technology to fool 911 call centers to make it appear a call is genuine, even if was placed in another state or even another country. When the police — arms in hand in high alert — are fooled into going to an address where nothing is happening, the people who live there have no idea what is happening and may react casually. The police can mistakenly interpret that as a threat.

In the Wichita case, the man arrested in connection with the fake call to the police, Tyler R. Barriss, 25, allegedly was having an online dispute with a fellow gamer, and the other gamer gave Barriss a phony address. From some 1,400 miles away, Barriss allegedly told Wichita police he had shot his father and was holding his mother, sister and brother hostage at the address.

The Wichita police responding to the call went to the home of Andrew Thomas Finch and mistakenly shot him to death after he opened his front door.

Swatters have gone after such celebrities as Tom Cruise, Russell Brand, Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Miley Cyrus, as well as journalists, video gamers, public officials and businesses. In 2014, a swatter managed to fool Naperville’s Special Response Team into going to a home in that suburb. Wichita Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston says swatting is “a national trend.”

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., is pushing legislation that would set penalties of up to 20 years if swatting causes serious bodily injury and up to life in prison if it leads to a death.

But stronger penalties aren’t enough, partly because swatters work in the seamy underside of the internet and can be hard to find. The job falls first to the police, as always, to keep their antenna up.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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