By Gary Walker
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Marina del Rey) is spearheading legislation that would impose severe penalties on anyone who engages in a rapidly-growing practice of “swatting” that can not only be costly to local law enforcement agencies and governments but also be dangerous.
Under Senate Bill 333, which would apply to all cases of false 911 reports, a person convicted of making a fake emergency report would be held liable for all costs associated with the response by law enforcement.
Estimates range from several thousand dollars to over $10,000 per episode.
The Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Beverly Hills Police Department and other agencies have spent thousands of dollars and put their officers in dangerous situations as a result of swatting incidents, according to Lieu’s office.
Swatting is an attempt to convince a 911 operator to send emergency personnel to a residence by falsely reporting that there is an emergency or an accident.
“The recent spate of phony reports to law enforcement officials that someone’s home is being robbed or is held hostage is dangerous and it’s only a matter of time before there’s a tragic accident,” said Lieu, whose Senate district has recently been expanded to communities such as Pacific Palisades, Brentwood and Beverly Hills.
“Swatting drains vital resources from law enforcement and puts officers and citizens into dangerous situations. To those who engage in this dangerous practice, be aware this is not a game and you will be held responsible for all associated costs.”
Several athletes and celebrities reside within The Argonaut’s coverage area, which includes Santa Monica, Venice, Playa del Rey, Playa Vista and Marina del Rey.
SB 333 passed its initial policy hearing by the Senate Public Safety Committee April 9.
Lieu said he was drawn to the problem because he has received complains about swatting and the fact that he represents an area that is home to a substantial number of high-profile citizens.
“Some of them are my constituents,” the senator said.
Actors Tom Cruise and Ashton Kutcher have fallen victim to the costly prank, as has singer Chris Brown. One of the most recent victims was radio and television personality Ryan Seacrest.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said last year after a false call from Kutcher’s residence that he would do everything is his power to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“If I find out who did that, I’ll prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.
Lieu said another important reason for sponsoring the bill was that he believes there is an inherent danger, not only to law enforcement personnel, but also to the residents of the home as well as possible innocent bystanders.
“The reason that it’s called ‘swatting’ is because due to the nature of these prank calls, usually a 911 operator will send a SWAT team to the home,” Lieu explained. “The homeowner could have a gun or in some cases private security might respond, and you can see how a misunderstanding or miscommunication can lead to an unfortunate situation.”
SWAT is an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics for law enforcement units that use military-style maneuvers in high- risk situations.
Police agree with the senator.
“They are mainly high-risk calls where they’re in danger, they see weapons,” Los Angeles police spokeswoman Sally Nadera told ABC News. “It’s a very dangerous situation for everyone, for the public and for the officers because they go and respond to these calls having the mindset they may encounter suspects.”
False reports of gunshots have been reported at the homes of singer/actor Justin Timberlake and singer Rihanna earlier this month. A 12-year-old boy was recently charged with making untrue calls of incidents at the homes of Kutcher and singer Justin Bieber.
The Los Angeles City Council is seeking similar legislation at the municipal level. A recent motion calls on the LAPD to report to the council’s Public Safety Committee in 30 days with solutions to address these “swatting” incidents.
The motion also asks the city attorney to draft an ordinance requiring perpetrators of these crimes to pay restitution to the LAPD for all costs incurred and report on the feasibility of offering a reward to anyone providing information that leads to an arrest and conviction of the “swatting” perpetrators.
Councilman Mitchell Englander, a co-sponsor of the motion, is asking his colleagues to back SB 333.
“I have asked for the city to support state legislation addressing this problem,” he wrote in his council newsletter. “Our city’s first responders are our first line of defense in emergencies and can not be put at risk or have their time and resources squandered by these senseless pranks.”
Lieu said that in addition to high-profile citizens, others have been targeted as well. “In Texas and Michigan, attorneys and members of the Coast Guard have been the victims of ‘swatting,’” he said. “In some cases, it can be pretty much anyone who has a grudge.”
Thus far, the only organization that has expressed public opposition to the proposed legislation is the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
The organization’s spokesman, Ignacio Hernandez, did not respond to calls or emails at Argonaut press time.
SB 333 has been sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee for review. The committee will hear the proposed legislation later this year.
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