The "swatting" phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down. The LAPD has sent officers to the homes of at least ten celebrities in recent months in response to prank calls about crimes being committed. There were four such incidents just last week; a psychologist blames a "lack of empathy" for the rich and famous.
On Friday the LAPD sent officers to Justin Timberlake’s Hollywood Hills home after a call came in of shots fired there by four black men. Less than two hours later, police rushed over to Tarzana after a 911 caller said someone had been killed inside Selena Gomez’s home. Both calls were pranks.
On Thursday, a bogus call sent officers to the Pacific Palisades home of Rihanna, and on Wednesday it was rapper Sean Combs’ mansion in Toluca Lake.
Police don’t always send a SWAT team in response to these calls, but the term “swatting” has come to identify these incidents.
The way it works is someone contacts 911 to report a serious crime or threat. The prankster uses a phone, a TTY phone for the deaf, reroutes the call through the Internet, or sends in a text or email.
It’s got the LAPD tied up in frustrated knots at chasing fake crimes. Chief Charlie Beck wagged his finger at the suspected prankster in October when Ashton Kutcher’s house was swatted.
“This is an under-policed city,” Beck said. “This is a city that has scarce police resources and to waste them on crank calls…affects everybody and so people should be upset about that.”
It was a fake bomb threat called to a bank a week after Kutcher’s home was swatted that helped investigators catch the perpetrator, a 12-year old boy who in March admitted in juvenile court to making the swatting call regarding Kutcher, as well as another about Justin Bieber. He’s awaiting sentencing.
Swatting is annoying and dangerous but it’s not new, says online media expert Karen North of USC’s Annenberg School for Communications.
Pranking and calling in false police reports “is nothing new,” says North. “As a psychologist I think one of the most disturbing aspects of swatting and other such behaviors is that it shows a lack of empathy” for celebrities.
North argues that most people obey rules or laws not because they’re afraid of getting caught, but because they’re afraid of hurting someone – because they have empathy.
Making a hoax call to police is a misdemeanor that can carry a sentence of up to a year in prison. If anyone is hurt during the incident, it can become a felony, with stiffer penalties.