Emergency personnel rushed to a home in Robinson Township on the evening of Aug. 13, only to find there was no incident. It was all a hoax perpetrated by someone from out of the area apparently unknown to the homeowners.
According to the police report, a teenager in the home was playing an online game with gamers from outside of the area. At one point, one of the gamers threatened to “swat” the Robinson Township home.
Shortly after that, Ottawa County Central Dispatch received a call transferred from the Grand Rapids Police Department, saying there was a shooting at the Robinson Township home.
It’s called “swatting,” as in calling in a police S.W.A.T. (special weapons and tactics) team.
These hoaxes are a huge waste of resources. They put innocent people at risk by having police officers descend on their home, often with weapons drawn. And it puts officers at risk as they must respond without hesitation to such a potentially dangerous situation.
The FBI says people who engage in this activity often use technology to make it appear that the emergency call is coming from the victim’s phone, or at least nearby.
“Sometimes swatting is done for revenge, sometimes as a prank,” according to a 2013 FBI report. “Either way, it is a serious crime, and one that has potentially dangerous consequences.”
It’s similar to the phony radio distress calls to the Coast Guard. But, now and then, the perpetrator gets caught and faces stiff penalties.
The Associated Press reported in May that an Atlantic Beach, N.C., man pleaded guilty in federal court to making a false distress call to the Coast Guard. Authorities said Homer Lewis Blackburn, 27, used a CB radio mounted to the balcony of his apartment to call the Coast Guard that he was abandoning his sinking boat. Blackburn then thought it was big fun to watch the ensuing search.
The Coast Guard said the search cost emergency agencies more than $288,000.
Blackburn now faces a maximum sentence of six years in prison, a $250,000 fine and restitution of the Coast Guard's costs. Big fun, eh?
Should the “swatter” in the recent Robinson Township case get caught and convicted, what’s the penalty? In Michigan, it’s just a misdemeanor: up to 93 days in jail and/or a $500 fine. Such a crime resulting in an injury makes it a felony and real prison time, heavy fines and restitution.
However, a crime across state lines can involve the FBI and make it a federal charge. The FBI in 2009 caught a 19-year-old Massachusetts man who was involved in a cross-state “swatting” ring, and he was sentenced to federal prison for more than 11 years.
Like the penalties for fake maritime distress calls, those committing “swatting” crimes should be swatted more heavily by the long arm of the law — whether it crosses state lines or not. Sentences imposed on those convicted of the crime should be consistent and involve serious prison time, heavy fines and restitution to the communities that were robbed by their stupid behavior.
This is not child’s play, and it certainly shouldn’t be treated as such.
Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung, Alex Doty, Fred VandenBrand and Mark Brooky. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to firstname.lastname@example.org or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.