A Seattle police officer responding amid the shooting of several officers in the city’s downtown on April 20th, 2017.
Photo: Elaine Thompson (AP)

The Seattle Police Department launched a program this week to let the public notify them they could be potential victims of a “swatting” hoax, according to Ars Technica.

Swatting is a crime in which a malicious party deceives police into thinking a dangerous situation is developing at someone else’s address in the hopes that officers will carry out their grudges for them. Many cases have involved streamers or online personalities whose enemies, or just random jerks, want to harass them.

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“Many of these people the connections you build with these streamers are intense and personal connections,” James Feore, director of the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association, told K5 News. “If they reach a point where they dislike a person, that feeling of hatred becomes that much more intense.”

The crime is at least somewhat predicated on the idea that U.S. police forces won’t use a reasonable amount of judgment and instead come down on the target in a heavy-handed fashion. Sometimes it turns deadly, as in the case of Tyler Barris, a Los Angeles man authorities allege was a serial swatter. He’s been charged with involuntary manslaughter for allegedly escalating a Call of Duty dispute into a deadly scenario, phoning in a hoax that lead to a police officer killing otherwise uninvolved and unarmed Wichita, Kansas man Andrew Finch. (Authorities have declined to charge the officer, though Finch’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.)

Other targets of swatting have included mass shooting survivor David Hogg, whose Parkland, Florida home was surrounded by officers and a police helicopter over a hoax in June 2018 while he was in DC to accept the RFK Human Rights award.

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The SPD has set up an official swatting resources page and issued a public service announcement on YouTube warning of the hoax, Ars Technica wrote. They also set up a dedicated system for emergency dispatchers in which users can submit specific addresses for law enforcement to double-check before determining a response. Ars Technica wrote:

SPD’s process asks citizens to create a profile on a third-party data-management service called Rave Facility (run by the company Smart911). Though this service is advertised for public locations and businesses, it supports private residences as well, and SPD offers steps to input data and add a “swatting concerns” tab to your profile.

With that information in hand, SPD says that any police or 911 operator who receives a particularly troubling emergency report and matches it to a location that has already been flagged with a “swatting concerns” notice, will share that information “with first responders to inform and improve their police response to the incident.”

Swatting “is a deliberate and malicious act that creates an environment of fear and unnecessary risk, and in some cases, has led to loss of life,” the SPD wrote on the resources page. “Anyone can be the target of swatting, but victims are typically associated with the tech industry, video game industry, and/or the online broadcasting community.”

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The anti-swatting system does not amount to a get-out-of-jail free card: The SPD wrote that first responders will still carry out a response to the call, just with more context on what to expect when they get there. In theory, that should give officers a heads-up that the potential hostage situation, gunman, or whatever else a swatter calls in could be a hoax.

“Nothing about this solution is designed to minimize or slow emergency services,” the SPD added. “At the same time, if information is available, it is more useful for responding officers to have it than to not.”

Hopefully this works, though any long-term solution to unnecessary officer-involved violence on the national level will more likely depend on meaningful reform of police departments themselves. Currently, it’s dubious that trend is headed in the right direction.

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Update, October 4th, 2018: SPD Public Affairs director Sergeant Sean Whitcomb told Gizmodo via email that he could not comment on the exact number of swatting cases the department had seen, but “I can tell you that it’s a concern for our community, our 911 Center and our first responders.”

“This initiative was community driven, with requests being made to us to create a registry for those who believe they may be the target of this specific type of crime,” Whitcomb added. “We scoured the internet to see if any other police departments have developed a solution, but we didn’t find any. We worked with Rave Mobile Safety to engineer a solution by repurposing an existing platform.”

[Ars Technica]

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