Swatting in Hollywood

Pranksters, police raids, and celebrities.


The New York Times notices a story that's been swirling around the Internet for a while. The subject is "swatting," in which people basically hack the police with calls directing SWAT teams to imaginary emergencies. The initial online coverage of the practice focused on people who use it to harass their enemies, but the Times discusses something else—pranksters swatting celebrities:

It's only fun until someone loses a life.

What once was merely a police annoyance in Southern California—thrill-seeking pranksters filing a false report of a breaking horrific crime at celebrity's home, designed to provoke the dispatch of SWAT teams—has turned in recent weeks into a full-blown "swatting" epidemic, drawing expressions of concerns from police officials and victims alike, and the promise of a crackdown by lawmakers in Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall….

The [Ryan] Seacrest call marked the sixth time in a week that the police had scrambled to respond to a report of violence at the home of a Page Six-worthy parade of celebrities: Sean Combs last Wednesday, Rihanna on Thursday, Justin Timberlake and Selena Gomez on Friday and [Russell] Brand on Monday. Previous victims have included Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus.

When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come?

Police officials said the calls typically were punctuated with alarming real-time portrayals of what was supposedly taking place inside the victim's home. "They give a very descriptive account, all the way down to the number of victims and the people screaming," said Sgt. Renato Moreno of the Beverly Hills police. "They paint a very horrific scene inside the house, describing a very uncontrolled scene."

The rash of hoaxes has put a strain on police departments already struggling with budget cuts. It also puts officers in danger as they race up the narrow streets in the neighborhoods where celebrities tend to live, or when they confront the armed private security forces that celebrities often hire.

One thing missing from the article is an awareness that there's a long history of wrong-door paramilitary police raids caused by errors rather than pranksters, with victims nowhere near as rich or famous as Selena Gomez or Tom Cruise. I say this not to downplay how terrible the Hollywood raids are, but to point out that there's a larger mess here. As California lawmakers ponder ways to penalize the people who make these calls, they should also look into the possiblity that a large, frequently deployed, and easily misled militarized police apparatus is itself a part of the problem.

For more on that problem, see Vice's recent interview with former Reasoner Radley Balko—author of the upcoming Rise of the Warrior Cop—on how "we started to see SWAT teams used on an almost daily basis." He also touches on the aggravating ways that the issue gets diverted into Red Team/Blue Team battles, as

Warrior cops for thee, but not for me.

political factions decry police militarization when it's used against them, but tend to fall somewhere between indifferent and gleeful when it's used against people they don't like. Conservatives, remember, were furious over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and a host of BATF abuses against gun owners in the 1990s—and rightly so. Liberals mocked them for it.

Liberals were furious at the aggressive response to the occupy protests—and rightly so. And conservatives mocked them. Liberals are rightly angry about militarized immigration raids—conservatives don't much care. Conservatives were mad about the heavy-handed raid on the Gibson Guitar factory. Liberals blew it off. Just a few weeks ago, Rachel Maddow resurrected the Ruby Ridge and Waco incidents in a segment about gun control—and was dismissive of people who thought the government's actions were excessive. Of course, Maddow was also fuming about the treatment of Occupy protesters.

Until partisans are willing to denounce excessive force when it's used against people whose politics offend them—or at least refrain from endorsing it—it's hard to see how there will ever be a consensus for reform.

Now I suppose we'll get to see the same dynamic play out among the fans and foes of Justin Bieber.