National News

Summoned by a prank call, police in Wichita kill a man at his front door

Posted December 29, 2017 9:23 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 9:56 a.m. EDT

The call to the police sounded dire: a violent dispute at a house in Wichita, Kansas, a person shot to death, an armed man holding hostages and threatening to burn the place down.

Police officers raced to the scene and surrounded the house. A man emerged and the police commanded him to put his hands up. Moments later, an officer fired a deadly shot.

The whole encounter Thursday night had been based on a hoax: There had been no shooting before the police arrived, no hostages, no threat of arson. Instead, it was a fatal incarnation of “swatting,” in which people report fake crimes in hopes of getting a SWAT team to raid a rival’s house.

“If the false police call had not been made, we would not have been there,” Deputy Chief Troy Livingston of the Wichita Police Department said at a news conference Friday. The police did not say whether they knew who had placed the prank call but said that it was a key part of their inquiry.

The victim was identified by family members in local media reports as Andrew Finch, 28. His mother, Lisa Finch, told The Wichita Eagle that her son had heard movement outside and was shot by officers when he opened the door to investigate.

Livingston placed the blame for the shooting squarely on “the irresponsible actions of a prankster,” but Finch said the police were culpable. “That cop murdered my son over a false report,” she said in an interview with The Eagle. She and other family members did not immediately respond to several messages from The New York Times on Friday.

Livingston said that Andrew Finch, who was unarmed, had not followed commands to keep his arms raised and that an officer had feared he was drawing a gun. Grainy body camera footage showed a person in a distant doorway, an officer ordering the person to walk toward the police, and a gunshot.

Swatting might be intended to be a scary nuisance, but it can have tragic fallout. In 2015, police officers in Maryland shot a man with rubber bullets after being called to a nonexistent hostage situation, causing broken bones and bruised lungs. That same year, a man in Oklahoma shot and wounded a police chief, thinking he was a burglar, after a swatting phone call.

But the swatting Thursday was unusual for its fatal ending.

“This is probably the worst-case scenario for a police department,” said Chuck Wexler of the Police Executive Research Forum, which advises departments on best practices. “The consequences here are so tragic. It’s every police chief’s nightmare.”

Wexler said that many departments had been trained to identify potential swatting calls, but that “technology clearly is trying to trump good common sense here. What may sound like a legitimate call has to be questioned.”

The Kansas shooting had some of the common markers of a swatting prank, including that the emergency call initially went to the security desk of City Hall, not 911, suggesting that the caller was not local.

The police were investigating unconfirmed reports that the call stemmed from an online video-gaming dispute, which is how many swattings originate, and that Finch was not the prank’s intended target.

Online players of “Call of Duty” and a news website called The Daily Haze posted screenshots and tweets Friday that they said indicated the swatting arose from a petty argument during an online game. Several gamers expressed disgust about swatting and said they hoped the prankster would be identified and arrested.

A spokeswoman for UMG, a video-gaming website that hosts competitive matches, including those for “Call of Duty,” said the company was “doing everything we can to assist the authorities in this matter.”

Detective Richard Wistocki of the Naperville, Illinois, police said players sometimes worked in groups to terrorize an online rival and send the police to their home.

“It’s not one guy. It’s a crew of people,” said Wistocki, who consults for other police departments on swatting cases and advocated an Illinois law that toughened penalties for swatting crimes. “One person can be in the U.K. One person can be in Vegas. One person can be in Kentucky.”

Such incidents can be solvable — Wistocki once went to Las Vegas to arrest a suspect in a Naperville swatting — but they also require a specific skill set and digital fluency.

Those convicted of swatting can face stiff penalties. In the Maryland case, two men were indicted in federal court on charges including conspiracy and false information and hoax, which could lead to prison time. In another federal case, a man was sentenced to just over a year in prison for swatting incidents in Connecticut. None of these instances resulted in a death.

No one had been arrested for the Kansas prank as of Friday evening, but Wichita officials said they had good leads. A spokeswoman for the Kansas City, Missouri, office of the FBI said Friday that federal agents were assisting local authorities but had not opened a separate case.

State and local authorities were also investigating the officer’s decision to shoot.

In a statement, the police union in Wichita expressed condolences for the family and said “officers must make split-second decisions using the information at hand.”

Swatting, it added, “needlessly endangers the lives of all those involved when it is just the fabrication of a twisted mind.”