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LAPD to keep quiet about celebrity 'swatting' cases

The Police Department says it will stop telling the media about the prank, in which someone makes a false report that causes an emergency response to a celebrity's home.

April 11, 2013|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

The Los Angeles Police Department announced Thursday that it would take the unusual step of no longer issuing press releases or immediately confirming instances of celebrity "swatting," saying intense media coverage seems to be fueling more incidents.

Cmdr. Andrew Smith, who oversees the LAPD Media Relations Section, said the procedural change was necessary because of concerns about the privacy of the victims as well as the belief that publicizing such incidents was emboldening copycats.

For now on, news outlets must make a formal public records act request for information about such incidents.

Under state law, government agencies must respond to such requests "promptly" but have up to 10 business days to determine whether the request is for records that legally must be disclosed. Smith said the department could reject the requests if disclosing that information could be seen as compromising an investigation.

"It's our belief that the perpetrators of these false police reports are motivated entirely by the publicity these calls receive," Smith said. "We intend to reduce or eliminate that motivation."

Smith added that the false 911 calls were tying up crucial police resources.

The term "swatting" comes from the tactical response typically generated by such calls, which usually include claims that an armed intruder is inside the celebrity's home and that someone has been shot and wounded. Contacts are made via text message, phone or a computer-generated report and are difficult to investigate because perpetrators can disguise the origins of their messages by using multiple computer servers and other technological means.

Celebrity targets usually are not home during such incidents, but confusion can result in injury to responding officers or to innocent people who are working or staying at the celebrity's home, authorities said.

In the last several months, there have been more than a dozen prank swatting calls involving celebrities. Most of the targeted homes were in areas patrolled by the LAPD; others were in Beverly Hills and areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, said that although sheriff's officials "understand and share the LAPD's concerns," the public has "a right to know about law enforcement's activities." Nonetheless, he said the Sheriff's Department would "seriously consider whatever policies the LAPD comes up with."

"The sheriff is pushing for enhanced punishments regarding false reports of emergencies whereby perpetrators will have to reimburse the municipality for the entire cost of the response," Whitmore said. "The sheriff believes this legislation is important."

Beverly Hills Police Sgt. Renato Moreno said police officials have discussed taking steps similar to the LAPD's, but as of yet, "no decision has been made."

"The goal is to get these incidents to stop," Moreno said.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said she did not believe the LAPD was hostile to the media, although its announcement represents "a strong reaction" to the wave of swatting incidents.

"They are in a bit of a bind because people doing this crime are doing it because they want to get attention, and the LAPD doesn't want to feed into that by notifying the media," Levenson said.

But she also noted that the media plays the key role of keeping the public informed, which includes reporting on the slew of swatting calls. She said the LAPD's approach may need refinement.

"It's nearly impossible for the media to do its job if they don't get timely information, so one would hope there could be a compromise," Levenson said. "That's going to take media representatives sitting down with the LAPD and finding some sort of solution that does not involve turning off the spigot of information."

Most of the celebrity swatting calls have occurred this year, and authorities say that since last year there has been a huge upswing.

Miley Cyrus, targeted last July, was the first major publicized case. That was followed by a wave of calls targeting Ashton Kutcher, Justin Bieber, Tom Cruise, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family.

The LAPD arrested a 12-year-old boy in connection with the Bieber and Kutcher incidents. He eventually received a two-year sentence, but the publicity surrounding his arrest and prosecution appeared to do little to stop the celebrity swatters.

Police were called to the Playboy Mansion and the home of actor-director Clint Eastwood. Then, last week, there was a flurry of swatting pranks targeting music stars P. Diddy and Rihanna, singer-actors Justin Timberlake and Selena Gomez, comedian Russell Brand and entertainment personality Ryan Seacrest.

The prank targeting Seacrest came hours after the radio host spoke to Brand, whose Hollywood Hills home was hit Monday.

"'Swatting' — I don't like the word very much. Swatting, obviously what you do to insects or a passing bottom," Brand joked to Seacrest on his morning radio show on KIIS-FM (102.7). "If all swatting attacks are this unnoticeable, I'm ready for war, because I didn't even know it had happened. I still don't know what a swatting attack is."

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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