City cracks down on swatting with new ordinance

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City cracks down on swatting with new ordinance
Charles Barrett and Cora Kelly Elementary Schools both received hoax threats on January 24. (Photo/Homes.com)
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By Wafir Salih | wsalih@alextimes.com

A new ordinance has been adopted in Alexandria to combat the dangerous practice of swatting, where individuals falsely report emergencies to elicit a large-scale police response.

The ordinance was passed by the City Council on February 13. In an interview with the Times, Mayor Justin Wilson said the new measures would give the city the ability to recoup costs from those found guilty of swatting.

“When someone is convicted of the anti-swatting code section then we can go after them civilly and recoup the costs of the response up to a max of $2,500,” Wilson said.

Wilson said the dangers of swatting extend beyond monetary losses.

“It’s beyond a financial issue. [Swatting] is the type of thing that could cost lives,” Wilson said.

Alexandria Police Department Interim Chief Raul Pedroso emphasized how dangerous swatting can be for law enforcement and the community at large.

“You’re bringing police officers into a situation that they’re not really needed with the mindset and approach that there’s someone in whose life is in danger. It’s not a good situation. Many things can go wrong in that instance,” Pedroso said.

Pedroso emphasized the department’s commitment to treating each emergency call with the utmost seriousness.

“From the police department standpoint, we’re treating it as if it’s a real emergency, unless there’s something specific that we know would indicate otherwise, we’re going to respond as if it’s a real danger,” Pedroso said.

Back-to-back hoax threats

The ordinance comes in the wake of two notable swatting incidents that took place on the same day earlier this year. On January 24, both Charles Barrett and Cora Kelly Elementary Schools received back-to-back hoax threats.

Pedroso said officers arrived on the scene of Charles Barrett and quickly determined the threat was a hoax.

“We responded without delay, we did a quick assessment and determined that the information that was being provided was false,” Pedroso said.

The situation had led to the Charles Barrett school evacuating students to the nearby Cora Kelly Elementary School, only for the threats to extend there shortly afterwards. Pedroso said since officers were already on the scene, they were able to determine that the threats there were false as well.

“We happened to be on-scene already because once the school made the decision to evacuate and relocate the children, we remained with the children,” Pedroso said. “We had police presence throughout, so when information was being called regarding [Cora Kelly], we were on scene and we were already able to say, ‘It’s not real.’”

Wilson said the swatting incidents at Charles Barrett and Cora Kelly were significant and echoed how widespread these incidents have become nationwide.

“The school situation was fairly high-profile and very disruptive and traumatic for those kids and the educators involved,” Wilson said. “Clearly these incidents nationally are getting a lot more attention.”

Swatting on the rise

The National Association of School Resource Officers, a training-based organization for school resource officers across the country, reported an average of 30 swatting incidents per week across schools in the United States in 2023.

NASRO Director of Operations Mac Hardy said he’s observed an increase in swatting calls. He also said calls lately have come in clusters, with multiple schools in a single school district getting swatted on the same day, similar to what happened with Charles Barrett and Cora Kelly.

“[There’s been] an incredible uptick in calls, a very large increase in the number of swatting calls around the country. What’s weird is they started now coming in clusters,” Hardy said.

Pedroso said that swatting calls are less common in Alexandria, with APD receiving about one a month.

Pedroso noted there has been an increase in recent years due to perpetrators using new technology to hide their traces, but law enforcement has also adapted.

“With technology, and the ability to disguise where you’re calling from, hide yourself from the authorities and be able to contact and claim that there’s some type of incident, we’ve seen it increase,” Pedroso said. “As a result, we adapt also. Our emergency call takers, our supervisors in the field, the officers themselves, we’re more in tune with these types of incidents.”

Pedroso said there were around 11 swatting calls per year from 2021 and 2023. He said APD has noticed that these calls have evolved from hoax bomb threats in 2021 and 2022 to more shooting-based threats from late 2022 onward.

Former Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne said the community should continue to back law enforcement as they confront the rising challenge of swatting with this growing phenomenon and highlighted Pedroso’s efforts to address these incidents.

“The community needs to continue its support of those we entrust to handle these situations. I do know that Chief Pedroso has made this a priority, and he will do what needs to be done,” Lawhorne said.

Hardy said some callers go to great lengths to make these hoax threats believable.

“I listened to a call a couple of months ago and what was scary is they had a little bit of knowledge of the school,” Hardy said. “They may have gotten that from online somehow, but they were saying the shooter was near room 207. And they were saying they were inside of room 208 and they could hear them outside, they could hear screaming and so forth. Calls like that are concerning.”

Hardy shed light on the vulnerability of handicapped students affected by swatting incidents and the challenges these students face during emergency evacuations.

“One segment of our population that gets overlooked in this is handicapped students,” Hardy said. “These schools educate and house handicapped students, it could be to the point of being a severe and profound brain injury. … That’s a lot having to move a student with these types of situations. On a day like where I’m at today, this cool rainy day, can you imagine having to get this child outside of a school building?”

Hardy said even if a swatting incident doesn’t result in bodily harm, that doesn’t rule out psychological harm.

“Even if no one gets [physically] injured, there are unseen injuries, and that’s trauma,” Hardy said.

Invisible wounds

Kathryn Ziemer, Ph.D., a psychologist and clinical director at Old Town Psychology, specializes in trauma and social anxiety and discussed the lasting fear and trauma that swatting incidents can induce in victims.

“Swatting can be incredibly traumatic for the victims. … They might feel vulnerable, violated, just knowing that someone deliberately orchestrated something like this that can be so dangerous and potentially life threatening” Ziemer said.

Ziemer noted how isolation can be a sign of trauma in the aftermath of a swatting event.

“One key sign [of trauma] is just if the person starts isolating or really withdrawing from people, including friends and family. They might also avoid people, places, anything that really reminds them of the event of the swatting,” Ziemer said.

She also said there are online spaces where victims can share their experiences with each other to connect and heal.

“I’ve read multiple Reddit threads of people who were victims of swatting,” Ziemer said. “There are places for other people who’ve gone through it to connect and just know that they’re not alone.”

Ziemer emphasized that self-care activities can reduce the feelings of hypervigilance often encountered in victims.

“Just doing what they can to focus on self-care activities, anything that can also just bring them that sense of joy, comfort and relaxation,” Ziemer said. “Things like exercise, meditation, deep breathing and spending time in nature [are] ways of helping them reduce that fight-or-flight hypervigilant reaction.”

Misdemeanor or felony?

In 2023, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill aimed at increasing the criminal penalties associated with swatting. Now, swatting incidents resulting in bodily harm are categorized as class six felonies, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison. If the swatting incident results in death, then it is categorized as a class five penalty, with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

A typical swatting call, however, is classified as a class one misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said he believes the typical swatting call should carry a felony charge instead, with the possibility of having the misdemeanor classification for less serious circumstances.

“I personally do believe that there ought to be a felony penalty as a baseline, and maybe we keep a misdemeanor in there so that if we have a 14-year-old or someone who really is just engaging in prank behavior, we could break it down to a less serious charge. But I don’t think a class one misdemeanor is a sufficient penalty to deter people from doing this,” Porter said.

Lawhorne echoed Porter’s stance on raising the penalty from a misdemeanor to a felony.

“This is not your typical prank phone call to the house, like ‘Hey, is your refrigerator running?’” Lawhorne said. “When you’re saying it’s a class one misdemeanor to call and say there’s an active shooter at an elementary school and kids are evacuated and sent to another school and a tremendous amount of public safety resources are spent on this, that’s a misdemeanor? That alone is a felony in my book.

If you want to discourage behavior, first thing you got to do is implement serious consequences for it.”

Porter said the anonymous nature of swatting can make prosecuting these crimes a challenge.

“It can be very difficult to investigate these cases and prosecute them, and that’s a result of internet anonymity. It’s a result of the fact that many of these calls originate out-of-state,” Porter said.

Porter said a class one misdemeanor can make it harder to extradite an out-of-state defendant.

“Generally, it would be more difficult to secure extradition of an out-of-state suspect for a misdemeanor offense than it would be a felony offense,” Porter said.

Porter applauded the move by Council to adopt the anti-swatting ordinance.

“Anything we can do to protect the taxpayers and try to recover costs associated with a false emergency response is a good thing,” Porter said.

Pedroso emphasized the ordinance’s role as a deterrent and how it sends a clear message to potential offenders.

“I’m a big proponent of anything that can be done through legislation to deter people from conducting this type of behavior or activity,” Pedroso said. “[Swatting] is dangerous, it’s a drain on resources and it’s not something that we want to let go or let happen without consequence. … It’s sending a message to the people of Alexandria that may want to do something like this: Don’t do it, because you’re facing not only criminal penalties, but now civil penalties as well.”

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