Kansas will soon have within its boundaries a Los Angeles man who is Exhibit A in the case for ratcheting up criminal penalties for false calls to 911.
Tyler Raj Barriss’ role in orchestrating a grim and needless death at a Wichita home is already a crime. He allegedly called 911 and drew police to the home of a man he didn’t know, convincing a dispatcher that a terrifying scene was unfolding.
The caller’s tone is eerily calm, almost flat, in portions of the 911 tape released by Wichita authorities. The caller claims that he has shot his father dead. And he says that a younger brother and the caller’s mother are being held hostage at gunpoint. The house had been doused with gasoline, he says, ready to be ignited.
To label this a hoax doesn’t sufficiently encapsulate what happened next.
After police arrived at the home, Andrew Finch, 28, was shot dead when he stepped onto his porch. A seven-year veteran of the Wichita Police Department reportedly believed that Finch was reaching for a weapon. The father of two was unarmed.
Barriss didn’t know Finch. He’d been recruited, authorities believe, because he’d developed a reputation among gamers for being able to manipulate police tactical squads. He knew what to say, how to coax dispatchers into his scheme. Barriss was known online as “SWAuTistic.”
That’s akin to being a hired assassin, but one who goads law enforcement into doing the evil deed.
The penalties ought to match the outcome. This was no harmless prank. And Barriss, 25, had already served time for a false bomb threat.
The FBI reports that least 400 incidents of “swatting” occur every year.
And yet, there has been much confusion over what charges were possible in this case. The crime happened in Kansas, but originated more than a thousand miles away. So far, Sedgwick County has charged Barriss with one count of making a false alarm, which is a felony in Kansas. But that might result in less than three years in prison.
It’s still possible that more charges could be added, including against the person or persons who investigators believe asked Barriss to apply his devious talent. Finch’s death is thought to be the result of people bickering over the video game Call of Duty: WWII.
Barriss has waived extradition. And few details, including the charging documents, have been made available.
That a dispute over something so mundane could lead to someone’s death through the manipulation of police SWAT units is fueling the outrage and the calls for heightened penalties beyond what appears to be available to authorities. Legislators are weighing their options.
The Online Safety Modernization Act was introduced last summer by U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts. The bill would create federal penalties for swatting, prohibiting knowingly transmitting false information to prompt an emergency law enforcement response.
Another bill, the Anti-Swatting Act, was introduced previously and may be reintroduced by sponsor Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat.
Congress and state lawmakers should take a hard look now at current laws in consultation with prosecutors and law enforcement. Swatting probably wasn’t a term that most Kansans were familiar with prior to Finch’s death. But this fatal hoax points up the fact that current statutes won’t necessarily ensure that the punishment fits this type of crime.
It doesn’t matter whether the false call is made over a land line, a cellphone or by a technological gadget not yet on the market, the crime is making the false call to police. And that’s already a crime. But if the outcome is death or serious injury, and if the adult defendant is a repeat offender, then probation and a short sentence are simply insufficient.
Finally, the role of police in Finch’s death, can’t be sidestepped.
No amount of outside interference — fake bomb threats or a swatting call — negates what should be solid police training and protocol for answering any call of distress. Police train to respond to the unknown.
To the horror of the nation, police have been ambushed recently after being called to a location by someone who falsely reports a crime in progress. Swatting is another form of such manipulations of 911.
For that reason, questions about how the call was handled by officers remain valid. Finch’s family, through a civil rights attorney, has been pressing for a full investigation. They deserve answers.
Police, particularly tactical units, are trained to be open-minded about any call they answer, never allowing themselves to be completely dependent on information that was relayed by a dispatcher. Besides, situations can change rapidly.
But police and prosecutors should have charging and sentencing options available to them that match the crimes they investigate. The swatting incident in Wichita exposed a gap in the criminal justice system.