Crime & Courts

Is it worth the risk for 911 to try to determine if a call is fake?

At least two things about the 911 call that led to the police shooting of Andrew Finch in a swatting hoax on Dec. 28 could have raised suspicion about the credibility of the call, said Trey Forgety, director of government affairs at the National Emergency Number Association.

The first possible indicator that something was amiss was that the call, in which the caller described a killing and a hostage situation, was initially made to City Hall’s security desk, not directly to 911. This is a common tactic of swatters trying to mask their identities.

The second, Forgety said, is that the caller described the house he was in as one story, when the house police arrived at was two stories. If that information was relayed to officers, it could have been a red flag, he said.

Sedgwick County would not provide information about what information was relayed from 911 dispatchers to officers, saying the police have asked that no additional details be made public. The Sedgwick County Department of Emergency Communications also denied a public records request pertaining to the 911 call.

The Wichita Police Department also wouldn’t answer a question Friday about whether police had been told the caller’s description of the house or that the call initially came through City Hall.

Police realized the call was a hoax after an officer shot and killed Finch, 28, at the address the caller gave.

A dispatcher was on the phone with the caller, who said he had a handgun and had shot his father, when the officer shot Finch, who did not have a weapon. Times provided by the police also show that the man who made the swatting call remained on the phone with 911 at least 16 minutes after Finch was shot.

The circumstances that led to the shooting raise questions about the training of 911 dispatchers, what information they communicate to officers and the role of dispatchers and officers in determining the authenticity of calls. Some say 911 call takers should analyze calls for discrepancies, while others say it’s up to police to make decisions about whether a call is a hoax.

Forgety said 911 dispatchers are typically trained about false calls, but swatting calls – often with elaborate reports of killings and hostage situations in an attempt to have police dispatched to an area – are a more recent phenomenon.

People who work in emergency communications across the nation are watching to see what lessons will be learned from the fatal swatting case in Wichita, he said.

On Dec. 28, police arrived at the address given in the 911 call, and Finch came out the front door to investigate the flashing lights. Police said they told him to raise his hands and have said he complied for a short time before lowering them near his waistline and raising them again. Fearing Finch had a weapon, an officer fired a single round and killed Finch.

Online gamers said the swatting call arose out of a dispute between two gamers, one of whom gave Finch’s address instead of his own. Finch was not involved in the dispute and did not play online games, his family said. Tyler R. Barriss, 25, was arrested in Los Angeles and accused of making the call.

Taking the call

All 911 call takers should be trained to evaluate whether a call makes sense, Forgety said, and to relay that information to officers.

Yet some experts, including Brent Turvey, director of the Forensic Criminology Institute and author of several criminology textbooks, say the responsibility to verify the call lies not with 911, but with the police officers on the ground.

“Their (911 call takers) job is to make a determination as to whether they need to send EMS, fire, police or all three,” Turvey said. “That’s what they should do and not try to evaluate the credibility of the call.”

Kate Flavin, spokeswoman for Sedgwick County, didn’t answer a question about whether Sedgwick County Emergency Communications has ever received training on swatting. She said the department follows standards set by the National Emergency Number Association and the National 911 Program.

National Emergency Number Association standards say that suspected prank callers ought to be called back and that “prank calls should be treated as a real emergency until proven otherwise. The called party will be questioned to determine if further action is needed or a response required.” The standards add that call takers may disregard a call if there is evidence that it is a prank.

Police have said the swatting call that sent officers to 1033 W. McCormick in Wichita appeared to be from a local area code. Swatters will often use caller ID spoofing or other techniques to disguise their number as being local. Or they call local non-emergency numbers instead of 911, according to 911.gov.

“With every call, call takers listen to background noises and ask basic questions to gather information about the emergency (i.e. what city, exact location, description of what’s occurring, if there’s a suspect and what s/he looks like),” Flavin said in an email. “This helps them get a clearer understanding of the situation for emergency responders. The information gathered helps first responders prepare for the scene and further investigate once on scene.”

Forgety, whose organization works with 911 professionals nationwide, said the way dispatchers communicate with officers varies by county. He also said that the 911 community, working with law enforcement, has to look at its communication protocols.

Taking calls seriously

While Turvey, of the Forensic Criminology Institute, agrees that every call should be treated seriously, he thinks that 911 shouldn’t try to interpret the truth of a call because its employees aren’t in the field.

Barry Furey, CEO of Barry Furey Consulting, has managed 911 centers in four states. In that time, he’s seen calls that seem fake turn out to be legitimate.

He tells a story of a frequent 911 caller who once called saying there was a Martian on her porch. The dispatcher sent an officer, who found a homeless boy sleeping on her porch. He’d been inhaling fluorescent paint, which left a green glow around his face. The story sounded fake, but ended up being a situation that required police response.

With swatting, there are usually few flags to indicate the call is fake, Furey said, and technologies to help determine a fake call or pinpoint the actual location of the phone aren’t available to 911.

One of the first things 911 employees are taught is to never cut off a call that might require an emergency response.

Already, dispatchers are trained to ask the caller a series of questions to determine what level of assistance should be sent, leading to speculation about whether additional questions could help distinguish a swatting call.

Furey worries that more questions could delay a response to dangerous situations.

“One commonality (in swatting calls) is they all report a significant, potentially life-threatening event,” Furey said. “These are not minor calls.”

Forgety, of the National Emergency Number Association, said, however, that 911 call takers are trained to recognize when things don’t make sense and that it’s important to communicate that information to officers.

Sometimes a 911 dispatcher might need to say, “Look, we have this report, but for one reason or another we’re not 100 percent sure this is accurate, this could be swatting, so when you approach, approach carefully,” Forgety said.

Turvey said that rather than 911 deciding whether a call is fake, police need to be more critical of the information given and use their judgment to determine whether force is needed.

He agreed that communication between 911 and police is key.

“People need to understand that 911 has always been open to abuse,” Turvey said. “We need to be very honest with ourselves about how often our neighbors call in fake 911 calls. When 911 is put in the position of interpreting truth, that’s when it breaks down. When law enforcement allows that to happen, that’s when tragedies occur.”

Katherine Burgess: 316-268-6400, @KathsBurgess

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