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Swatting on the rise
An increase in hoax 911 calls raises questions about motive

07/09/15
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



There have been four calls to police in as many months claiming people were injured, held hostage or threatened with injury in four towns, three of which are within about a dozen miles of each other. With recent cases in other parts of the state as well, the problem seems to be growing in frequency, and authorities still don’t know what’s motivating the hoaxers.

 
What’s happening?
On July 6, a man called police claiming he had taken a hostage at a Rochester home and later called back to say he had shot the hostage. Authorities evacuated the area but came short of activating the tactical team because they were able to determine it was a hoax early on. No one was home at the residence. Police in the area have had enough experience with hoax calls like this lately that may have made them wary of calling in SWAT.
During the early morning hours of June 18, Newmarket police got a call from someone claiming they had accidentally shot a friend and threatening to shoot police when they arrive. The response team, which included Newmarket, Greenland and Epping police officers as well as state police, arrived at a Grant Road residence to find unsuspecting residents at home asleep.
About two weeks earlier, on June 6, a SWAT team of regional police officers descended on the Back Shore motel in Gloucester, Massachusetts, expecting to find an armed individual holding hostages. The evening prior, Stratham police and members of the Seacoast Emergency Response Team surrounded an Irving gas station convenience store and closed traffic to Portsmouth Avenue and Route 101. Again, they were expecting hostages. In both cases, there was no suspicious activity upon arrival at the scenes.
“We received a call indicating that there was a bomb, a hostage and somebody in possession of a firearm at the Irving station,” Stratham police chief John Scippa said.
When police found no bombs or weapons in the building and realized the call was a hoax, they quickly connected it to an earlier hoax call in Rye on April 21. The situation was almost identical. A caller said there had been a stabbing at the Abenaqui Country Club and the stabber had taken two hostages and was in possession of a bomb.
Scippa said his department has been working with Rye and Gloucester to see if there is a connection between their cases.
“There was some information garnered from the telephone calls. I can’t go into specifically what that information was. That’s part of the investigative process now,” Scippa said. “We’re trying to collect as much information as we can, compare notes, and do as thorough a job as we possibly can to try to figure this out.”
If Scippa were to cast a wider net, he might look at other recent cases, including two that happened on April 4 in Billerica and Hopkinton, Massachusetts, one in Keene on April 2, one in Groton, Massachusetts, on March 23 and another in Manchester on March 15. In the Billerica case, juvenile suspects were apprehended. Other cases remain under investigation.
 
Investigating and prosecuting
Charles Putnam, the co-director of Justiceworks, a criminal justice research institute at UNH, said multijurisdictional cooperation is key to finding the perpetrators when a pattern seems to emerge.
“There are ways for, particularly, law enforcement agencies at the state level to look for ways to help municipal departments coordinate their efforts to combat the problem and even to coordinate across state lines,” Putnam said. “In other words, Massachusetts State Police and New Hampshire State Police may have some ability to convene a working group or task force to look at a problem if they’re finding a cluster of incidents in the same area.”
But, Putnam said, hoaxers are growing increasingly adept at covering their tracks.
“There are a number of ways for committed people to hide their activity. That can be a challenge for law enforcement,” Putnam said. “It can be challenging and complex to investigate and prosecute.”
The technologically adept can mask the originating phone number or use a prepaid “burner” phone that’s later destroyed.
And some legal challenges remain. For one, swatting is not technically a crime. Prosecutors have to charge swatters with tangential crimes like conspiracy, fraud or making threats to use a firearm. Massachusetts lawmakers have proposed a bill that would add “swatting” to the criminal code lexicon. It would make swatting punishable by up to 2.5 years with fines starting at $2,500. Manchester police say each SWAT response costs about the same amount. The bill hasn’t had a hearing yet and New Hampshire has not proposed any similar bills.
Despite those challenges, Putnam is hopeful that police can track down these callers. When and if that happens, police will gain valuable insight into their motivations.
 
Motives
Putnam says prank calls meant to incite an emergency response is nothing new.
“I tend to view this kind of phenomenon in a broader historical and social context where pranks involving police and fire go way back,” Putnam said. “There are a number of origins and possible motivations for it.”
People have long called police for revenge against another for a perceived slight, such as in the aftermath of a bad breakup, according to Putnam.
In its most modern iteration, swatting has grown more sophisticated. Individuals are increasingly aware of what they need to say to police dispatchers in order to trigger a heavy response, and the Internet makes it easier to share that info anonymously with others. Several documented cases suggest the increased popularity of the prank owes its genesis to the growth of online video games and live webcam streaming. This provided hoaxers a way to record heavily armed officers storming into a gamer’s home and post the video on YouTube.
But the recent cases in New Hampshire don’t match that pattern. For one, individuals are not being targeted.
“Best as we can determine now, it was just the location [that was targeted],” Scippa said of the Stratham gas station.
Two of the targets along the seacoast were businesses.
“What [that] means, I don’t know,” Scippa said. “I don’t think anything’s off the table at this point, in terms of what the motivation could be. I think we have to keep all options available. … Is it a prank and nothing more than that? Or is it connected to an organized criminal element that’s trying to divert resources? That remains to be seen at this time.”
For his part, Putnam can’t speculate on the likelihood of one motive over the other given the available facts. But Scippa says even if it’s a prank, the risks of someone getting hurt when police prepare for the worst means this is no laughing matter.
“It endangers people’s lives,” Scippa said. “It’s not a joke. It’s not funny.”
 
As seen in the July 9, 2015 issue of the Hippo.





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