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LAPD grapples with responding to possible ‘swatting’ calls

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LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles police are recalibrating their response to some emergency calls in light of a series of prank “swatting” calls reporting violent incidents at the homes of celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber and now 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 Los Angeles Police Department officials said. But they are trying to warn officers more quickly in cases where an emergency call appears to have the hallmarks of swatting. Swatting is 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 while 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 to officers or victims 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 domestic violence and possible shooting call at the Hollywood Hills home of Brown 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 area 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 home when the LAPD showed up, police said. Brown’s parents arrived at the residence shortly after police, LAPD officials said.

The incident is the third in a series of pranks targeting celebrities.

In early October, Los Angeles police dispatched several units and tactical officers to Kutcher’s home on Arrowhead Drive after they received a report through a TTY device from a woman who said she was hiding in a closet because there was a man with a gun inside the residence, according to sources familiar with the case.

Police responded and briefly held workers at gunpoint at the home before contacting the actor and determining it was a hoax.

A week later, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies received a report claiming a gunman had fired shots at Bieber’s house and was threatening to harm police when they showed up. The message also was received through a TTY device and sheriff’s officials later determined that the call was a hoax and that the pop star was away on tour at the time of the incident.

The LAPD tracked the calls and in December arrested a 12-year-old boy who was 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 Kutcher and Bieber residences.

But the swatting calls apparently began anew last week.

A Beverly Hills police SWAT team surrounded actor Tom Cruise’s home Thursday after a report of shots fired. The next day, Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies responded to a call of a possible shooting at the former Malibu residence of the Kardashian-Jenner family.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said that while the department has not definitively determined that the incident, described as a shooting, involved swatting, it was “a definite possibility.” He said the Sheriff’s Department is also adjusting its response to reflect such prank calls.

“As we become more advanced, the Sheriff’s Department is responding appropriately to each occurrence,” Whitmore said. “We are getting better about identifying what is real and what is not.”

As swatting incidents continue, Lt. Andrew Neiman said the LAPD is looking for ways to increase the consequences for those behind a prank that could be deadly and that is costly for the city while also diverting police and firefighters from real emergencies.

The department has approached the city attorney about pursuing civil remedies against the pranksters to recover the cost of the large 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.

“If there is anything that comes out of the interest in this as new technology emerges and abuse of new technology occurs, then we have to address that with new laws,” Beck said.

“God forbid somebody gets severely injured or killed in an incident like this. I don’t doubt the felony murder would apply. We would certainly try to do that.”

Sheriff Lee Baca and a state senator are seeking to increase the penalties for swatting.

Under a proposed swatting bill by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, if convicted the person making the 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 the perpetrator with a felony when someone gets hurt as a result of the prank call. 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 prison if someone is injured.

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