Supporters of those who have been outspoken in criticism of the portrayal of women in video games have been among the most common targets of swatting.
A man called the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) April 11 saying that he had shot a woman at their Broadway Street home and intended to shoot any officers who approached the house, prompting a major response from NOPD officers in an armored vehicle who shut down roads around the home while they investigated.
The call turned out to be a hoax; the resident of the house emerged to tell officers she was fine and unharmed, and mystified why someone would make such a call. But her daughter, who studies Internet harassment, believes the prank was directed at her as part of a new but quickly growing form of online abuse spreading dangerously into real life.
The New Orleans Police Department received the call Saturday night on a non-emergency line, with a male caller telling the dispatcher that he had shot his girlfriend at a home in the 300 block of Broadway, said Commander Bobby Norton of the NOPD Special Operations Division at a meeting last week of NOPD ranking officers.
"He says he just shot his girlfriend and killed her, and any police that approaches the house, he's going to kill them," Norton said. "He gave a specific address on the house."
Norton and Second District Commander Paul Noel had officers surround the house and close down the streets near it, but directed them not to approach the home itself. Meanwhile, Norton began researching the address and discovered that there was no history of domestic abuse or other violent crime calls there, suggesting the call might have been false.
"We started to kind of believe that it was going to be a bogus complaint, but obviously we can't treat it as a bogus complaint," Norton said.
One neighbor said she went outside around 10 p.m. to wait for a cab to the French Quarter, but instead found a police officer in tactical gear. He asked if she was OK, then if she had heard any screams or gunshots coming from the house of the supposed victim — which she hadn't.
Finally, Norton sent an armored vehicle up to the house, so that if there was someone determined to shoot at officers, the vehicle would protect them. Instead, the homeowner came out the front door and assured police that she was fine.
The homeowner did not seem afraid during the ordeal, the nearby resident said, only perplexed.
"She was as surprised as we all were, standing in a bathrobe," the resident said.
As a final precaution, Norton sent a team into the house to check it for any threats. When they confirmed that there was no evidence any crime had occurred, Norton was confident in deeming the original call a hoax.
Although the entire police response took less than an hour, a prank such as this creates numerous problems, Norton said. First, it took about 20 officers away from their normal jobs — around half of them were charged with answering routine calls around the Second District, and the other half were from the Special Operations Division, which is used for proactive work.
Second, the urgency of the response demanded by such a call created what could have been a volatile situation for the residents of Broadway and Audubon streets, Norton said. False police calls have led to tragedies elsewhere. In January, the police chief of a small town in Oklahoma was shot by a homeowner while the officer entered the homeowner's residence in response to a similar fake call.
"It's dangerous on our officers who are responding, because they're believing there's somebody in the house and shot and may need medical attention," Norton said. "Now you've got all the officers responding, which is putting the officers in danger, and putting the citizens in danger."
Another Broadway resident said he faced the possible danger firsthand during the incident. Around 10 p.m., he got a text from a neighbor asking why so many police were in the neighborhood. He looked outside, didn't see any officers and walked outside with a flashlight to investigate. A few steps down the street, the resident said, he was confronted by an armed SWAT officer who told him to put his hands up and questioned him to determine he wasn't the caller.
"For a prank call, somebody needs to pay the price," the man said. "The scary thing about it was ... I could have been shot."
Fake SWAT calls have become increasingly common in some Internet communities, where it is known as "swatting." In one of the most highly publicized incidents, a group of videogame players broadcasting their gaming session live were the target of a hoax call in suburban Denver, and thrown to the ground by responding officers in full view of their web cameras, broadcasting the incident over the Internet. Some who have criticized the portrayal of women in video games have been among the most common targets of swatting.
The daughter of the victim of Saturday's hoax no longer lives in New Orleans, but studies online harassment and has spoken publicly against it. While she has communicated online with some of the victims of high-profile cases, she never has been a target of it, nor a target of the anonymous Internet groups associated with the practice.
After learning of the prank at her former home in New Orleans, the victim's daughter said she scoured the Internet message boards where such incidents are usually planned, but did not find a mention of her name or address. Still, it's a clear case of swatting, and her own affiliations with the study of online harassment are too strong a connection to ignore, she said. "This is the general pattern of swatting — calling in a false, violence-based report to trick the SWAT team into being deployed," the victim's daughter said.
In the most severe cases, the hoax callers have even tried to create circumstances that could lead to tragedy. Last month, a hoax caller in New Jersey told police about a hostage situation at a game store and then — after police were assembled around the location — called the store posing as an emergency responder and gave the people inside instructions that could have provoked police into using force.
"This is a trend," the victim's daughter said. "This is a digital abuse tactic that online harassers victimize people with."
New Orleans police have been unable to trace the number from which the Broadway Street call was made, but continue to investigate. In the short term, Norton said, there is no way to prevent similar hoaxes; police have to respond carefully and appropriately when threats are reported to them.
"The only thing that we can do is backtrack and hopefully find out who does this and have them arrested," Norton said.
Swatting pranks have led to jail time in other jurisdictions, such as Orange County, Calif., where a 19-year-old hacker from Washington state was sentenced to three years in prison for a similar false report. In New Jersey, State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty has introduced legislation that would increase penalties for swatting incidents above those already in place for false reports. After media reports about his proposed legislation, Moriarty himself was the target of a swatting call at his home on the same day the incident occurred in New Orleans.
The Uptown victim's daughter said that people who believe they could be the targets of swatting should call their local police departments before anything happens, and ask the call to be documented at the house. That way, if they are the target of a hoax, the police can find that information among the location's call history, and possibly respond with the same restraint Norton's team used at her mother's address.
Likewise, the victim said, the NOPD has the opportunity to use Saturday's incident as the basis for more training to prevent tragedy the next time such a prank occurs in the city.
"This could make some waves and raise actual awareness, meaning that the police force will be aware and ready to react to swatting as a prank and take preventive measures," she said.
— This story originally appeared on the website of our newsgathering partner Uptown Messenger. To read more, visit www.uptownmessenger.com.