A San Mateo woman woke up to have eight police officers pointing guns at her. It turns out, she fell victim to a "swatting" prank, where someone tells 911 that police need to respond to "shots fired," and it simply isn't true. Stephanie Chuang reports.
It started with a phone call at 2 a.m. on Thursday. On the other end of the line was a San Mateo police officer who told Laurie to leave her house on the 2300 block of Clipper Street.
Laurie, who didn’t want her full name used, said what happened next was surreal.
“I opened the door and there were floodlights, and they started yelling at me to put my hands in the air,” she recalled. “I got halfway out and couldn’t see them. Then I worried they weren’t really the police.”
Just seconds later, she said she came face-to-face with up to eight police officers all pointing firearms at her. She’s thankful she had nothing in her hands that could be perceived as a threat.
“When there are so many guns on you, somebody could have made a mistake and thought I was doing something was threatening, so it was frightening,” she said.
Dave Norris, a sergeant with the San Mateo Police Department, said initially officers got a report of shots fired, with a suspect barricaded inside Laurie’s house, holding hostages. After securing a perimeter and initiating a reverse-911 call to neighbors telling them to shelter in place, Norris said police realized it was a hoax.
It’s part of a growing trend - especially in Southern California - called “swatting,” named because it typically involves someone making a prank call to emergency responders claiming there’s a violent incident that requires a SWAT response, or something like it. In most states, it can be either a misdemeanor or felony to report any untruth ot law enforcement.
“It’s very high risk. The officers have a belief from the original call that there’s a weapon, handgun or some type of firearm involved,” Norris explained. “The officers are ready, willing, and able to take action if they need to to preserve the safety to the community. So, there’s a possibility of shots being fired.”
Laurie’s landlord and next-door neighbor, Simon, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, said the police response was too extreme. He said officers first knocked on his door to verify Laurie’s identity and get the number to her house.
“That when they said it was probably a hoax but they still had the guns drawn and everything,” said the father of three. “Ridiculous they would go on some anonymous call or tip that there was murder in the house or whatever, right? I don’t understand it. You figure they’d have something to verify it.”
Norris said it’s not that simple, even with the technology available today.
“There are a number of different ways to defeat investigative techniques. We might have something easy to trace a call back, find out who it is, or we may have some difficulty in getting through a spoofed number,” Norris said.
He added, “Or, difficulty trying to find voiceover internet phone number that may not be exactly what it appears to be.”
According to the department, there’ve just been about half a dozen swatting cases in San Mateo in the last couple of years, but Norris pointed to what he called a growing trend in Southern California.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles County have charged a 12-year-old boy for a swatting prank that sent dozens of Los Angeles police officers to actor Ashton Kutcher’s house in October last year. Since then, celebrities like Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and the Kardashians have been reportedly targeted.
Now, the LAPD is asking the city attorney there to pursue felony charges and force swatters to pay up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the law enforcement response. Various California lawmakers have also announced bills that would allow for longer sentences and higher fines for those convicted of making false police reports.
As for Laurie, she said the nightmare still hasn’t come to a close. In fact, she has a multitude of questions plaguing her throughout her day and what she expects to be many sleepless nights.
“I’m wondering, is somebody targeting me? What’s next? I have to keep that out of my mind.”