Politics & Government

Wichita swatting death should spur Congress to act, lawmakers say

Nearly two years before a police officer shot and killed Andrew Finch during a "swatting" call as he stood on the porch of his Wichita home, officers responded to the home of U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts.

She had been swatted.

The January 2016 hoax call aimed at Clark’s home was quickly resolved, and she was unharmed. But the Democrat has continued pushing for anti-swatting legislation, a cause she took up even before she was swatted.

In the aftermath of Wichita’s deadly swatting incident last week, lawmakers – including Wichita Republican Rep. Ron Estes – are showing interest in taking steps to fight swatting. Clark on Tuesday called on Congress to pass her anti-swatting bill.

The legislation, the Online Safety Modernization Act, would create federal criminal penalties for swatting. Swatting is falsely reporting a serious ongoing crime — like a killing, hostage situation or bomb threat — to draw a large police presence to an address.

In the case of Finch, police responded to his home after a caller falsely reported a hostage situation.

"My heart goes out to the Finch family and everyone affected by Andrew Finch's death. Thursday's swatting attack should be a wake-up call for Congress," Clark said.

"Federal laws that were written before the age of smartphones and high speed internet have failed to keep pace with predators who use the internet to terrorize victims and ruin lives."

Clark introduced the bill along with other sponsors over the summer. It remains in the House Judiciary Committee.

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The bill prohibits knowingly transmitting false information in an effort to cause an emergency law enforcement response, according to a news release when it was introduced in June.

Under the bill, if a swatting call results in serious bodily injury, the swatter could face a prison sentence of up to 20 years. A death resulting from swatting could lead to life in prison.

Estes didn’t specifically endorse the bill, but indicated he is open to legislation.

"The individual responsible for the fraudulent distress call to the WPD should be held fully accountable before the law," Estes said. "In order to prevent future tragedies like this in our community, I'm looking into legislation that would increase criminal penalties for those who make hoax ‘swatting’ reports to police."

Sen. Jerry Moran and Sen. Pat Roberts didn’t immediately comment on Tuesday.

Another federal bill, the Anti-Swatting Act, would enhance penalties for people who falsify their caller ID information to cause a response to a fake emergency. Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said he will re-introduce the legislation, which he has sponsored in the past.

"What happened in Wichita last week was tragic and absolutely senseless. While it may sound like a prank, swatting is a deplorable act which can have serious and fatal consequences," Engel said.

"An innocent man lost his life in Kansas, and police were thrust into a volatile situation all because some deranged person 1,300 miles away wanted to create a spectacle. This has to stop."

It’s unclear whether caller ID falsification was involved in the Wichita swatting incident. Police say the call was made to City Hall.

Tyler R. Barriss, 25, is suspected by police of making the call that sent Wichita police to Finch’s home. He was arrested and is being held in Los Angeles. He could appear in court this week.

Kansas law already criminalizes false calls for emergency assistance. Those false calls are a class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in the county jail, a fine of up to $2,500 or both. Some false calls to police can instead be a felony, punished with up to 13 months in prison for a first-time offender.

State Rep. Tom Sawyer lives just a few blocks away from where Finch was shot. His district includes Finch’s home.

He said the Kansas Legislature needs to review the law on making false calls. He added that he not heard of swatting before last week’s shooting.

"I think we need to not only review what there is, but really take a hard look at increasing the penalties, whatever they are," Sawyer said. "Because obviously, whatever they are, they’re not enough of a deterrent."

Contributing: Katherine Burgess of The Eagle

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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