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Friday, November 21, 2014         

NEW YORK TIMES


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Hollywood 'swatting' hoaxes strain both police and stars

By ADAM NAGOURNEY and IAN LOVETT

POSTED:



BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. » The 911 call came in late Monday afternoon. Two men with guns, one sheathed in a bulletproof vest, were storming the home of actor Russell Brand, tucked away on a crest in the Hollywood Hills.

The Los Angeles Police Department sent officers racing up the narrow twists and turns of North Doheny Drive leading to the Brand home. There, guns drawn in a cul-de-sac, they found only a shocked and frightened housekeeper taking out the garbage. Brand had left 30 minutes earlier.

"She said nothing had happened there, but we still have to search the house to make sure she wasn't sent out to say that," said Lt. Marc Reina of the Hollywood division of the Los Angeles police.

What once was merely a police annoyance in Southern California — thrill-seeking pranksters filing a false report of a horrific crime at a celebrity's home, designed to provoke the dispatch of a SWAT team — has turned in recent weeks into a full-blown "swatting" epidemic, drawing expressions of concerns from police officials and victims alike and the promise of a crackdown by state and local lawmakers.

Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Seacrest — who earlier that day on his radio show had aggressively challenged Brand after Brand tried to make light of his own experience — became the latest victim of a swatting prank. The Beverly Hills Police Department received a late-afternoon false report that a group of armed men was trying to break into Seacrest's gated estate on Cabrillo Lane.

The Seacrest call marked the sixth time in a week that the police had scrambled to respond to a report of violence at the home of a Page Six-worthy celebrity. Police also were called to the homes of Sean (Diddy) Combs a week ago Wednesday, Rihanna last Thursday, Justin Timberlake and Selena Gomez on Friday and Brand on Monday. Previous victims have included Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise and Miley Cyrus.

Police officials said the calls typically were punctuated with alarming real-time portrayals of what was supposedly taking place inside the victim's home.

"They give a very descriptive account, all the way down to the number of victims and the people screaming," said Sgt. Renato Moreno of the Beverly Hills Police Department. "They paint a very horrific scene inside the house, describing a very uncontrolled scene."

The rash of hoaxes has put a strain on police departments already struggling with budget cuts. It also puts officers at danger as they race up the narrow streets in the neighborhoods where celebrities tend to live or when they confront the armed private security forces that celebrities often hire.

"This is a silly new fad a couple of people are doing," said Cmdr. Andrew Smith of the Los Angeles Police Department. "We intend to prosecute them. It's extraordinarily dangerous for the officers and the people at the targeted location."

Brand, in the radio interview with Seacrest on Wednesday morning, said he was not home when the call was made and thus was spared the experience of encountering a swarm of police officers, guns out, surging onto his property.

"I suppose what would be bad is if police were attending a swatting and an actual crime happened, and it took police too long to get there because they are doing a swatting," Brand said, before turning to humor. "Other than that, it does sound like a laugh. I say that as a swatting victim."

The authorities do not see the joke.

"It's very bad," Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy D. Baca said in an interview Wednesday. "People who are celebrities don't deserve to be targets of emergency police response on hoaxes. It's unnerving to them. They don't know why the police are there, and yet once the police are there they are required to check out whether or not something is going wrong."

In Sacramento this week, a state Senate committee, acting on a request of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, reported out legislation that would make it easier to convict people of filing a false report and impose a hefty financial penalty: reimbursing municipalities for the cost of the response.

Ted Lieu, the Democratic senator who is sponsoring the bill and whose district includes such, in the view of hoaxers, swat-worthy neighborhoods as Beverly Hills, the Pacific Palisades and Bel Air, said that police responses can cost thousands of dollars and that a full-blown SWAT team can cost $10,000. He said that hoaxers were often thrill-seeking teenagers and that his legislation would make parents liable for the costs in the case of minors.

"It is a drain on law enforcement," Lieu said.

He said police officials were correct in responding with an outsize show of force because a violent incident might be taking place.

Police officials said that, typically, pranksters placed a 911 call through a computer, often by hacking into someone else's account or using a system for people with hearing disabilities to disguise their locations. They report a crime in progress at a celebrity's address, usually involving people armed with guns or bombs, which prompts the police to respond Code 3, with lights and sirens.

The authorities said they had become more sophisticated in tracking down prank calls.

"A lot of people think that if they're on a confidential server, it won't give away their address," Smith said. "But if you put a search warrant in front of an Internet company, they can give you pretty much whatever information the judge tells them to."

Last month, a 12-year-old boy confessed to making calls that drew the authorities to the homes of Bieber and actor Ashton Kutcher. The boy is now serving two years in juvenile detention, the authorities said.

There was a time when Los Angeles police would have responded to any report of a threat on a celebrity with an all-out show of force. In October, 42 police officers responded to a report of a man with a gun inside Kutcher's home, backed up by a hovering helicopter and a brigade of firetrucks.

Yet a familiar wariness has begun to settle in as these calls have become more common. Monday, the Los Angeles Police Department dispatched a solitary patrol car to Brand's home.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, said his agency had become more adept at spotting hoax calls and scaled back responses accordingly.

But that is not always the case.

"When we do get these calls, we always take them very seriously," said Moreno of the Beverly Hills police. "We never assume that it's another one of these swatting calls. We respond with every available resource that we have, including the fire department and paramedics on standby."

The reduced response by the police is itself a matter of concern. The authorities said they were concerned that should there be a real incident, valuable time could be lost to deploy the kind of response needed.

"It puts us in a precarious position," Reina said. "If officers are thinking it could be swatting, maybe they let their guard down approaching the home. What happens if one of these days, it's a real incident? The safety of everyone involved could be jeopardized because of this boy crying wolf."






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