At least nine Seattle police officers, guns drawn, swarmed a high-rise apartment building one day this past August after getting a 911 call. The caller had said he was holding five hostages at the location, and if he didn’t get $5,000, he would kill them all.
The officers swiftly took up positions ready to shoot, according to body-camera footage of the incident. On cue, the lead officer knocked on the door. “Seattle Police Department. Anyone in there?” he yelled.
“Yeah, just a second,” a voice replied. Moments later, a barefoot young woman faced down a heavily armed police squad. Inside the apartment, it was just her and her cat — no hostages.
The 911 call was a hoax known as “swatting,” so named because Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams are often used when responding to the most serious emergency calls, like reports of hostages. The criminal prank uses cities’ emergency response systems to harass their targets by sending police rushing into unsuspecting victims’ home.
Swatting remains a serious problem across the country, but as a hub for gamers and streamers, Seattle needs a solution sooner rather than later. And on Monday, the Seattle Police Department announced it’s finally found one: Officials worked with a local tech company to repurpose an app called RaveFacility, which provides information such as floorplans and contact numbers to emergency responders for places like school and business campuses. Because the system is linked to addresses, Seattle police will now be able to use the system as a makeshift database for potential swatting victims — as long as they sign up.
“For the average person, this had gone away a few years ago, but for our industry, it’s been growing larger and larger,” said James Feore, director of partner relations for the Seattle Online Broadcasters Association, a group made up of streamers. They’re often the target of swatters because their live presence on the internet allows the dangerous prank to play out live, for everyone to watch.
Feore said he’ll be encouraging the several hundred members of his group in Seattle to sign up for the registry.
Swatting isn’t just an annoying and wasteful use of police resources. The criminal pranks can take a human toll as well. In December 2017, for example, police shot and killed a Wichita, Kansas, father of two in a swatting incident. One of his fellow videogamers was charged with a felony for making the false call to police.
Recent incidents like that have particularly concerned popular video gamers and streamers, and earlier this year Seattle Police Public Affairs Director Sean Whitcomb received a call from one asking if they could register their address for fear of being swatted.
“It’s definitely a really serious thing, that if there is any way that we can put measures in places, then I definitely think we should try and make that happen,” one Seattle streamer who spoke on the condition of anonymity told VICE News.
The streamer is already careful about protecting their identity and uses only their screen name and doesn’t post locations or identifying home information online.
“If you are talking against swatters, that puts a giant target on your back,” they added. “There is a friend of mine that has been swatted three times, and he has a small child at home.”
To curb the problem in Seattle, Whitcomb did some research. “When the request first came in, I scoured the internet for something we could borrow.” But he found nothing and calls to other departments were no help either. Some states, like California, have laws requiring those convicted of falsely reporting an emergency to reimburse the police department, but that doesn’t impact the way police respond to a 911 call they later find out is false.
Whitcomb’s next call was to Noah Reiter, vice president of Customer Success at Rave Mobile Safety. Like hundreds of other jurisdictions around the country, Seattle contracts with the company for Smart911, a system that allows people to input information online to gives first responders more information that may be helpful in an emergency: what the house looks like, if pets are in the home, and important medical information. Because the swatting calls aren’t coming from phones linked to the address being targeted, however, the current system can’t help alert police that the resident believes they may be swatted.
The two spent a long time on the phone searching for a solution. “I was hoping it was going to be easier, but sometimes the easiest requests are the hardest to accommodate,” Whitcomb said.
Finally, they had an idea. They could repurpose another product the company offers called RaveFacility. A streamer or other individual that fears being swatted logs into www.ravefacility.com and fills out a profile. When a Seattle 911 operator receives a call that requires a large response or seems suspect, the operator will input the address into a program that sits open on their computer desktop. (Swatting calls often refer to shots fired, and operators may become suspicious if they only get one call about such a noisy incident.)
Police don’t wait for the information to come through before responding to call, but when they arrive, they’re more prepared. It’s like an alarm going off at a bank after the manager has called to say it was accidentally tripped, according to Whitcomb. “Officers responding to critical incidents want the best information available so they can make the most informed decision,” he said.
There is fear among the streamers we talked to that registering on a list of swatting targets might compromise anonymity and even make someone a more likely target. But the system keeps all its information confidential. Since a private company outside the police department handles the information, its names, addresses, and other information aren’t subject to Freedom of Information Act requests. Also, the registry has no added costs for residents of Seattle since it’s simply a repurposed version of a product already used by the city.
But what if you don’t live in the city of Seattle? Whitcomb said he’s shared the the department’s plan for RaveFacility with neighboring jurisdictions and suggests resident’s reach out to their local police departments, too.
“I was overwhelmed and just over the moon that something like that could happen,” the local streamer who originally requested the database told VICE News.
Cover image: During a drill, SWAT team members walk through the car deck while "securing" the ship Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, aboard the Washington State ferry M.V. Salish, out of Bainbridge Island, Wash. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)