COLUMBUS, Ohio — A new bill in the Ohio Senate would criminalize "swatting," which is when an individual calls emergency services and falsely reports a serious crime, such as a hostage situation, active shooter or bomb threat. This hoax has the goal of sending a large police presence, or a SWAT team, to approach an unsuspecting victim.
Calling 911 should not be taken lightly, but law enforcement reported that the "prank" is causing traumatic and sometimes deadly incidences.
Numerous cases in Cleveland have popped up during the pandemic, with a previous News 5 investigation finding swatting incidences in Medina and Bay Village — but those are only two of the numerous examples across the state.
Some alleged offenders have lived in Ohio and caused them in other areas.
A man in Wichita, Kansas, died in 2019 after being swatted by someone in Ohio, according to the Department of Justice. A Medina teenager was allegedly involved in sending police to the home of the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, who lives in LA, according to Medina police.
"It is usually younger gamers, online people who use technology to prank 911 and send a heavy-armed response to a scenario that is not needed," said Jason Pappas, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio (FOP).
Pappas has seen an increase in swatting calls since the pandemic began. Many of the cases he has seen revolve around technology, specifically gaming.
"They'll call from Ohio and say, 'Hey, in California, we were with this other person online — this is where they live and this is what's happening. They're being held hostage, there's lots of guns, there's drugs,'" he added. "When you get a situation like that, as law enforcement, obviously you send out your SWAT teams or a large presence, lots of officers, and hence the name swatting."
The individuals who do this, typically adolescents or 20-year-olds, in Pappas' experience, may think that it is "funny."
But it isn't funny to the person being swatted or the law enforcement showing up to what they think is a life-or-death situation, he said.
"They show up thinking that there's this very terrible hostage situation with guns and then it turns out not to be true, which obviously can have all kinds of negative consequences for both the officers and the people who have been swatted," Pappas added.
Not that the "prank" had never occurred before technology was widely available, but it has been increasing for a few years. Pappas said he hasn't heard of many cases recently, but he knows it is still an issue.
"During COVID, when a lot of kids were playing online a lot and they weren't in school, there seemed to be a little more of an uptick," he said.
Because of how relatively new this phenomenon is, there isn't actually a crime specifically designated for the act.
"Typically, the only recourse we would have would be to charge somebody with misuse of 911," he said. "The technology has outpaced the law, it appears."
State Sen. Andrew Brenner, a Republican from Delaware, wants to catch the Ohio Revised Code up.
"Senate Bill 292 will provide another tool in the toolbox for prosecutors to address this serious disregard for safety and resources," the lawmaker said in his sponsor testimony in March 2022.
Although he did not comment Friday about the bill, the Republican referenced incidences in his community where two cases happened within one month of the other.
"The legislation before you was introduced at the request of the Attorney General and as companion legislation to House Bill 462," he said.
House Rep. Kevin Miller, a Republican from Newark, introduced the original bill with former Rep. Rick Carfagna, who left his seat as a Republican from Genoa Township to become the vice president of government affairs at the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.
Miller was busy Friday, but talked about how the gaming community — specifically live streamers — have made it popular.
"Perpetrators can watch their pranks unfold in real-time on computer webcams as officers burst into residences demanding victims to get on the ground and/or put their hands in the air," Miller said during testimony in April of 2022. "House Bill 462 aims to deter and appropriately punish those who choose to engage in this outrageous behavior."
Twitch streamers like LosPollosTV, Summit1G and Koota are among the many gamers who have been swatted during livestreams.
The companion bills, which are nearly identical, would make swatting a third-degree felony. If someone is hurt in a prank call, then it could become a first-degree felony. The bills would also allow a court to order the offender to reimburse the law enforcement response.
"Presently, the only applicable charges to these situations would be making false alarms, inducing panic, menacing or harassment, but they are all misdemeanor offenses," Miller added in his testimony.
Pappas and his organization haven’t decided on their stance on the bill, since it is so new, but they are interested in working with the Legislature to make sure the bill sends the right message, he said.
"Once the information is out and they know that it's much, much more serious and is likely to have serious consequences, I think it would put a stop to a lot of it," Pappas added.
As of right now, there are no outspoken opponents to this bill, but testimony will be heard at hearings in both the Senate and the House in the future.
"Swatting is not cool," Pappas advised to those who think the hoax is funny. "Swatting is a very dangerous activity and we highly encourage you not to participate in that kind of activity, whether it's online or in-person. Do not abuse the 911 system or you will be punished."
One Kentucky lawmaker also plans to introduce a bill making swatting a felony in the commonwealth. A Georgetown couple victimized by a March swatting incident said they both felt "assaulted" the night Scott County sheriff's deputies stormed their home in what turned out to be a false report of a homicide