|Police deployed to a videogamers meeting|
A funny thing happened on a Saturday night at a videogame store in a small New Jersey town.
Forty people had gathered for the monthly meeting of the North Atlantic Videogame Aficionados. At around 8 p.m., the gamers were surprised to observe heavily armed police taking up positions outside the store.
An employee answered a phone call from a local fire official who asked her to close the window blinds at the front of the store and to run out the back door. She did so.
The police inched their way into the store, poised to shoot. To their surprise (and, no doubt, relief), they found a bunch of perfectly peaceful videogamers.
In fact, the police were responding to an anonymous 911 call alerting them to a hostage-taking at the store. The caller said several men armed with rifles were threatening people inside the building.
Two towns' police departments had dispatched well-armed SWAT teams to defuse what they believed to be a potentially deadly situation.
It was all a joke -- an episode of what is called "swatting."
New Jersey's Swatting Epidemic
When I first saw a newspaper headline about "swatting," I assumed the story concerned parents or teachers spanking misbehaving children. I may have had the misbehaving children part right, but I got the larger picture wrong.
SWAT is an acronym for Special Weapons and Tactics. Many municipal police departments have SWAT teams to deal with extremely dangerous situations.
In one case, the cops responded to a call about a man with a gun in a house. They surrounded the house, knocked gingerly on the door with weapons drawn and were met by a woman who was alone and unarmed. Searching the house took a while, but everything turned out all right.
In the last two weeks, there have been many more swatting incidents.
Two shopping centers have been emptied for periods of an hour or longer while police investigated false bomb threats.
Several high schools' operations also have been interrupted by bomb threats.
Most shocking, swatters have called in bomb threats to two hospitals.
What to Do
Swatting may be a fun prank to the swatters, but police are required to take all threats seriously. They resent the stress and effort spent responding to false alarms.
And politicians are steamed. One state legislator proposed that swatters be punished with five- to 10-year prison sentences and fines of up to $150,000. We can assume that his goal was to discourage swatting, but it did not work out well for him.
Shortly after he introduced his bill, an anonymous 911 caller told police he had shot someone and would shoot any police officers who showed up to investigate. The swatter sent the police to the legislator's home address. Nobody got hurt, but the armed and helmeted SWAT team and legislator were not pleased to have been played.
It would be fair to say that tensions are running high in New Jersey.