At least 16 emergency calls across Florida one day last week reported an active shooter at a school. Each one of the responses required an assumption: the 911 caller is telling the truth.
Each call, including two in Pinellas County, prompted responses from dozens of police units with heavily armed officers swarming school parking lots. Inside, students were put on lockdowns. They, too, believed there was someone with a gun on campus.
But each call was a hoax.
This phenomenon is called “swatting.” It’s a false report of an active shooter meant to elicit a large mobilization of first responders. Active shooter calls will bring out significant numbers of squad cars, high-ranking officers, ambulances and, in some cases, SWAT teams.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National School Resource Officer Association, said there has been an increase in swatting calls nationwide this year.
These hoax calls cause particular fear among a generation brought up in the era of frequent school shootings. They also take away law enforcement resources from legitimate needs, said Bryanna Fox, an associate professor in the department of criminology at the University of South Florida.
For Fox, the hoaxes raise the question of how to prevent police from becoming complacent.
“The sad part of this is you never want a law enforcement officer to think, ‘Is this real?’” Fox said.
It’s like the boy who cried wolf, Fox said: If a police officer responds to enough hoax calls, will they respond less urgently in the future when there might be a real shooter?
Spokespeople at multiple Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies said they treat every active shooter call like a real threat.
A spokesperson for the St. Petersburg Police Department, Ashley Limardo, said officers will clear the area as if the call is real until they’re certain it’s not. Schools may dismiss students early and police have to create a safe pick-up zone for parents to reunite with their children.
“Though these calls can be frustrating, we will always continue to treat them as a real threat and respond accordingly,” Limardo said.
Because of the suck on resources, swatting calls can lead to longer response times to other incidents, Fox said.
“It’s very wasteful,” she said.
Fox believes people who make these calls could be seeking attention or the power of knowing their report led to a widespread response. Calls in the past have come from students inside the school, others have come from someone unrelated to the school.
It’s unclear if the calls last week were coordinated. St. Petersburg police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez said detectives were investigating the calls.
Often, the initial response to a swatting call is from a school resource officer, though the majority of schools don’t have one, Canady said. The school resource officer will often hear of the active shooter call from the 911 center and have to determine if the situation is real.
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Canady said those officers are receiving more training about deciphering swatting calls.
But the false reports don’t come without a strain on the mental health of an officer preparing to protect students from a potential shooter.
“It is extremely frustrating,” Canady said.