Few would argue that large cities like Los Angeles shouldn’t have standing SWAT teams to handle hostage or crisis situations. A team responded to a hostage situation at a local Nordstrom Rack just earlier this month.
The militarization of the police force has resulted in numerous terrible consequences that we’re all dreadfully familiar with by now: An endless parade of unneeded and violent raids to serve search warrants (often at the wrong address); the frequent pointless murders of family dogs; the acquisition of powerful weaponry no police force (even in Los Angeles) would ever likely have a legitimate need for; and the tragic and unnecessary deaths of both innocent residents as well as police officers themselves. SWAT teams do have a legitimate purpose, even if they’re so frequently misused.
So it is a bit of a bitter pill that the one legitimate use of the SWAT team has led to the obnoxious “swatting” trend – where a prank caller contacts 911 and tells the operator that there’s a violent crime in progress at somebody else’s address. The police respond in full force, prepared for danger, only to find some very confused, harmless people.
Swatting is not terribly common, but there have been several high-profile incidents in Los Angeles in the past year. Since this is Los Angeles, “high-profile” means “celebrities.” Targets have included Justin Bieber, Chris Brown, Tom Cruise, Ashton Kutcher, Simon Cowell, Miley Cyrus and the Kardashians. All our best and brightest! (Really, can you imagine trying to narrow down a pool of possible suspects for these?)
Anyway, California legislators, at the request of Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, are proposing a bill to increase the penalties for Swatting. Via the Los Angeles Times:
[Mike] Gatto and [Ted] Lieu both propose that those convicted of making false 911 reports be liable for all costs associated with the police response. Such pranks are "a complete waste of law enforcement resources," said Gatto.
The Assemblyman's measure, AB 47, would also increase the maximum fine for conviction from $1,000 to $10,000 and make it easier to file murder charges if someone is killed in a swatting incident.
Existing penalties for false 911 reports include up to one year in jail, but an offender may get probation with no jail time. Lieu, a military reserve prosecutor, wants to set a minimum sentence of 120 days in jail.
The problem, though, as that they’ve only caught one swatter so far in these celebrity cases and he was a 12-year-old boy. Increasing penalties doesn’t do much good when you can’t catch the perpetrators.
Also, the Times is ignoring the lovely way prosecutors can throw the book at defendants. From their own previous reporting of a non-celebrity swatting prank, a teen was sentenced to three years in state prison in 2008. The prosecution tacked on a charge of “false imprisonment by violence” and he was ordered to pay $14,765 in restitution to the responding law enforcement agency. Arguably, increasing the penalty isn’t really necessary, and mandatory minimums are generally bad policy (even if this one is reasonably short).
The Times also reports that the LAPD is “recalibrating” their responses to 911 calls to try to react more quickly to possible pranks. They’re still going to send a full contingent of officers, though (imagine the potential liability if they decide a legitimate call is a prank).
Now, if only their concerns about accidentally injuring innocent people extended to the SWAT raids that don’t originate from calls to 911, the ones that the police departments themselves coordinate and are often completely unneeded.