CEDAR RAPIDS — Responding to a call of a shooting, a possible killing and a holed-up suspect, police including a special response team ringed an occupied northwest Cedar Rapids home late Monday before determining the report was a hoax.
The two adults and child in the house, who appear to be unwitting victims of “swatting,” were unharmed.
Yet the criminal hoax tied up public safety resources that could have been needed on other calls — and could have ended far differently.
“There is (an) inherit safety issue that presents itself when there is a report of a shooting and homicide,” said Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow. “There was a significant public safety response to the area.”
The people in the house at first were unaware of what was going on outside their home as the heavy police presence arrived, he said.
“And then you have officers who have to determine whether a violent crime has been committed,” he said.
“Swatting” — a hoax named after police Special Weapons and Tactics teams — is when someone calls 911 to falsely report a serious crime like a homicide or hostage situation to elicit a swift and heavy police response to a particular address or area.
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This was the first reported incident of swatting in Cedar Rapids in five years, Buelow said. The Gazette last reported an incident of swatting in Linn County in June 2015, in Toddville.
The 11:30 p.m. Monday call to police reported a shooting and possible homicide in the 1700 block of Wolf River Lane NW, Buelow said. The shooting suspect had barricaded himself inside the home, the caller claimed.
The call triggered deployment of the police department’s Special Response Team.
After more than two hours, Buelow said, police determined there had been no shooting and no homicide. Instead, he said, investigators concluded the call was a hoax intended to activate a SWAT-like response.
Incidents of swatting started popping up in the early 2000s, according to the FBI. In the past few years, swatting gained momentum mainly because several celebrities — including Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian — were targeted.
According to the FBI, swatters “often tell tales of hostages about to be executed or bombs about to go off.”
Officers sporting bulletproof vests and carrying automatic weapons will deploy to the reported location in large numbers, all preparing for the possibility of facing a violent offender.
That kind of activity could lead to people getting hurt or even killed, as was the case in Kansas in December 2017. That year, 28-year-old Andrew Finch inadvertently was killed by Wichita police in his home as the result of a swatting prank.
Media reports indicated Finch was unarmed and standing in the doorway of his residence when he was shot.
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Tyler Barriss, the man whose 911 call triggered the SWAT team swarming Finch’s residence, pleaded guilty last year in federal court to making a false police report resulting in death, and several other charges linked to other calls in which no one was injured, according to CNN. He was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.
Buelow said the investigation of Monday’s incident is ongoing and a suspect has not yet been identified.
But suspects in these cases often can be difficult to identify, he said, as swatters typically make the false 911 calls from spoofed numbers — the caller identification information is altered to appear as if the call is coming from someone or somewhere else. Police believe that likely was the case with Monday night’s swatter.
If identified, the caller could face charges of making a false report to public safety officials.
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