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Officials seek harsher 'swatting' penalties for prank calls

January 23, 2013 |  6:13 am

This post has been corrected. See below for details.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and a state senator are seeking to increase the penalties for "swatting," the prank emergency calls reporting violent incidents -- often at the homes of celebrities -- that draw a law enforcement response.

Under a proposed bill by Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), if convicted, the person making a false emergency report would be held liable for all costs associated with the response by law enforcement.

Lieu's bill also would make it easier to charge a swatting suspect with a felony when someone gets hurt as a result of the prank call. Also, prosecutors would no longer have to show that the person knew injury or death would occur as a result of the false report. Those convicted could get as many as three years in jail if someone is injured.

(For the record, 7:38 p.m.: A previous version of this post incorrectly said those convicted get as many as three years in prison if someone is injured.)

Los Angeles police Lt. Andrew Neiman said the LAPD is also looking for ways to increase the consequences for those behind such pranks, which officials say could be deadly, are costly for the city and divert police and firefighters from real emergencies.

The department has approached the city attorney about pursuing civil remedies against convicted pranksters to recover the cost of responses. Chief Charlie Beck said the LAPD is also hoping California, as Michigan did last year, will tighten the law and penalties for such pranks.

Los Angeles police are recalibrating their response to some emergency calls in light of a recent resurgence of prank calls, including incidents at the homes of actor Tom Cruise and singer Chris Brown.

Officers will continue to respond immediately, in large numbers and with force if needed, to reports of crime at the homes of such VIPs, top LAPD officials said. But efforts are being made to warn officers more quickly in cases in which an emergency call appears to have the hallmarks of swatting, they said. The term "swatting" comes from a prank call reporting a violent crime that results in a tactical police response that may include a SWAT team.

Deputy Chief Debra McCarthy, who oversees the LAPD's West Bureau, said that although the number of fake 911 calls about hostages or potential deadly violence at celebrities' homes is exceedingly low, officers are being cautioned to be aware of the possibility of swatting in a bid to limit injuries or death because of miscommunication or confusion.

"We haven't changed the way we respond, because in life-and-death situations you must respond always prepared, good or bad," McCarthy said. "But we want to be really careful it is not a prank and this isn't the home of some unsuspecting individual. We have to be extra vigilant because this is occurring."

On Monday, an LAPD lieutenant warned over the police radio that a call concerning domestic violence and a possible shooting at Brown's Hollywood Hills home could be swatting.

The initial report came to the LAPD via TTY device, which is typically used by the deaf to type text over the telephone. The device has been used in other false calls alleging violent crimes at the homes of celebrities.

Brown was not home at the time of the incident, which was reported shortly before 5 p.m., but people employed by the singer were at the house when the LAPD showed up, police said. Brown's parents arrived at the residence shortly after police, LAPD officials said.

Last week, a Beverly Hills police SWAT team surrounded Cruise's home after a report of shots fired. The next day, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deputies responded to a call of a possible shooting at the former Malibu residence of the Kardashian-Jenner family.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said that although the department has not definitively determined that the incident involved swatting, it was "a definite possibility." He said the Sheriff's Department is also adjusting its response procedures to reflect such prank calls.

A 12-year-old boy was arrested in December and charged last week by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with three counts of making false threats stemming from phony police incidents at the homes of actor Ashton Kutcher and singer Justin Bieber.

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-- Andrew Blankstein and Richard Winton

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