UNION COUNTY, NJ — Every time someone calls in a fake 9-1-1 call that results in a real SWAT team or a large-scale emergency police response, especially one involving schools, children and parents suffer emotional distress, taxpayers lose dollars and officials lose time and resources.
Swatting is another name for a prank 9-1-1 call made to a school, or any public or private entity, drawing police and often heavily armed SWAT team officers to a location where there is a made-up emergency.
Locating the origin of these calls, though, is not easy. According to police and FBI officials, many of these calls are made from out of state or even outside the country. Because of the digital revolution, tracking these offenders can be impossible. Many times the caller is computer generated and sent out randomly.
Just last week, Linden became the latest victim of a swatting incident that resulted in all city schools, a total of 6,000 students, under lockdown until police ensured there was no real threat. But the process of discovering whether a threatening phone call is real or just another swatting incident is far from easy and local authorities say they absolutely cannot take any chances.
On June 16, when the call came into Linden police headquarters that “someone was going to shoot up the school,” authorities moved quickly. After locking down the schools within minutes, police followed up on what turned out to be several dead-end leads.
Two of those leads led them to a house with guns drawn, where they found a distraught homeowner who had no idea what was going on. Later, police went looking for a driver of a white truck who earlier stopped at the school to ask directions. They did find the owner of the truck and cuffed the driver, but found he knew nothing about the swatting incident.
However, these days, officials said, when it comes to any threat, they have no other option but to respond. Anything less could result in a tragedy.
According to Capt. James Sarnicki, who released a statement after the incident, police officers investigated several leads that were provided in the threat, all of which turned out to be false.
Chalk this up another swatting incident with no suspect in custody. But Linden is not the only Union County town to become a victim of a swatting.
Earlier in the month, two schools in Cranford were the target of a swatting incident. Both Cranford High and Brookside Place schools were placed on lockdown and students ordered to “shelter in place.”
The response by police and the Union County Sheriff’s Department came after an anonymous call was received at 10 a.m. involving an unsubstantiated threat. While officials followed up on leads, the two schools remained on lockdown until authorities determined at 1:30 p.m. it was safe for classes and after-school activities to resume.
Legislators are trying to address the issue of swatting by enacting stronger laws.
In May, the Assembly’s Homeland Security panel voted 3 to 0 to move a proposed swatting measure to the full assembly. The bill sponsor, Democrat Assemblyman Paul Moriarty from Gloucester County’s Washington Township, introduced the measure and, afterward, coincidentally became the victim of a incident himself.
Swatting became very personal for this assemblyman when police received a call from someone who gave Moriarty’s address and said he had shot his father and tied up his sister and mother. The caller also threatened to shoot any police that showed up to the house in response.
Although it did not take long for police to realize the call was the result of swatting, Moriarty said every time a police department is called out on a false call like this, they are not out patrolling the rest of the community.
“It’s dangerous, it’s sick, someone could get killed, someone could get seriously hurt and it’s not funny at all,” he said, noting that upgrading the penalty for certain false alarm convictions would make it far more likely suspects involved in swatting incidents would get prison sentences of as much as 10 years and a fine of as much as $150,000, if convicted.
Union County Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, who represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes Elizabeth, Union, Hillside and Roselle, is chairwoman of the Homeland Security Committee. She was concerned, noting swatting incidents happened in New Jersey six times in April alone.
Although swatting incidents have been growing in recent years and have been receiving more media and police attention, it is unclear how many states have responded with legislation. Police officials also indicated that, while no one is officially tracking swatting incidents nationally, it is estimated that there are 400 occurrences or more a year.
The FBI is assisting local law enforcement in investigating these incidents, according to Celeste Dante, spokesperson or the FBI’s Newark office. Others believe being able to catch these offenders is the key, but that is no easy task, considering the technical equipment available to these offenders.
Mark Fletcher, chief architect for public-safety solutions at the telecommunications company Avaya, said there are many ways swatters can avoid detection, including using “spoofing technology” that masks their telephone number, using emergency dispatching for deaf callers, and blocking or masking a 9-1-1 call.
Fletcher said a caller can even manipulate a system to mask their own number and substitute someone else’s number in its place. In fact, a call can originate from another country and be diverted multiple times before reaching its destination, which makes it nearly impossible to trace.
Some authorities have questioned whether the swatting calls could be a way for terrorists to see the response time of local police and SWAT teams. Local and state officials did not agree with that theory, pointing out there were many other ways for this to be accomplished.
In California, a bill passed in 2013 requires that anyone convicted of swatting reimburse authorities for the time and resources used. This element is also part of Moriarty’s proposed bill.
The problem with these types of calls is police never know if the call is real or not and they cannot take a chance.
“The call that comes in saying there is a guy in a school saying he is going to kill people could be real,” said one police director, pointing out that real or not, they have to react.
Nabbing these swatters, though is not impossible. Sometimes, the culprits are caught, as evidenced by the arrest made by the FBI in September 2014, when a 21-year old man was apprehended on charges that he was part of an international ring of online gamers swatting schools in New Jersey and five other states.