‘Swatting’ Hoax Tests the Police and Stars Alike

April 11th, 2013

Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles police officers responding to a hoax call last week at a house owned by Ashton Kutcher.

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The 911 call came in late Monday afternoon. Two men with guns, one wearing a bulletproof vest, were storming the home of the 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. Mr. 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 breaking horrific crime at celebrity’s home, designed to provoke the dispatch of SWAT teams — 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 lawmakers in Sacramento and at Los Angeles City Hall.

On Wednesday afternoon, Ryan Seacrest — who earlier that day on his radio show had aggressively challenged Mr. Brand after Mr. 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 Mr. 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 parade of celebrities: Sean Combs last Wednesday, Rihanna on Thursday, Justin Timberlake and Selena Gomez on Friday and Mr. 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. “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 in 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. “We intend to prosecute them. It’s extraordinarily dangerous for the officers and the people at the targeted location.” 

Mr. Brand, in the radio interview with Mr. 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,” Mr. 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,” Leroy D. Baca, the Los Angeles County sheriff, 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.”

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