Wichita ‘swatting’ death a fatal turn in a dangerous trend in gaming

“Swatting” is a dangerous trend that is especially prevalent in online gaming, and the latest incident resulted in the death of an innocent Wichita man Thursday night. 

Andrew Finch, a 28-year-old father of two, was shot and killed by a police officer on Thursday in Wichita, Kansas, during a “swatting” incident stemming from a Call of Duty argument that he had nothing to do with.

Tyler Barriss, 25, was arrested on Friday in connection to the swatting incident — which he allegedly conducted following a dispute between him and another Call of Duty gamer over a $1.50 money match — and is being held on a fugitive no-bail warrant. Barriss is not a first-time offender of such hoaxes; he was arrested in late 2015 for calling in a bomb threat to ABC Studios in Glendale, California.

The disturbing rise in swatting incidents, particularly in the streaming and gaming community, has coincided with a rising chance of a fatal encounter between police and swatting victims. Many in the gaming and streaming community have been warning about this very situation, in which a prank takes a tragic turn.

And now Andrew Finch is dead.

The term “swatting” is used to describe a method of harassment that involves deceiving an emergency service, such as a police or fire department, into sending personnel to an address to provide aid or assistance in response to a report of a serious emergency, such as a bomb threat, murder, hostage situation or other incident.

This isn’t the first swatting incident that has been documented in the gaming community recently — earlier this month, bomb threats forced the evacuation of the Call of Duty World League Dallas Open, one of the largest tournaments in the game’s history. Streamers whose addresses have become public have been swatted on-air. But this is different. It is the first reported death directly related to acts of swatting in the gaming community.

Finch, his mother told The Associated Press, did not play video games. He became an innocent victim caught up in a malicious gaming subculture he knew nothing about.

According to 911 audio released by the WPD, Barriss, using phone or computer equipment in California, allegedly spoofed Wichita police patrol and dispatch officers into believing that he was inside a house holding his family hostage at gunpoint. He then claimed to have doused them in gasoline and that he might set them and the house on fire. Barriss allegedly gave police an address that he believed belonged to the other gamer, but it was Finch’s instead.

Officers were dispatched to the address, and when Finch exited his home, he was given several verbal commands, Wichita Deputy Police Chief Troy Livingston said, and told to keep his hands above his head. Finch dropped his hands to his waist several times, Livingston said, and was shot when he dropped his hands to his waist and quickly lifted them back up.

Officers that are dispatched on such serious calls have no choice but to believe the report and act accordingly. Livingston said Friday that the nature of the call might have heightened the awareness of officers on the scene and created tension leading up to the encounter. The officer who shot Finch is on paid leave pending an investigation.

Most police officers are not trained specifically for cases of hostage negotiation, according to Todd Rogers, a former assistant sheriff for Los Angeles County. Often, a SWAT unit isn’t immediately called, but when it is, mobilization of the unit and procedures on-site are very taxing on the law enforcement agencies and area they patrol.

“Regardless of the size of the department, being called out to hostage situations is always a massive drain of resources,” Rogers told ESPN. “It requires a large field response with personnel, crisis negotiators and more. When these resources get called into an area, they obviously aren’t available to other areas that have an actual emergency. For smaller agencies, it may be the only team they have.”

The FBI estimates there are around 400 cases of swatting per year; this was the first case Livingston was aware of in the WPD’s jurisdiction, he said Friday.

“If there are more,” he said at a press briefing, “obviously, they didn’t raise to this level of seriousness.”

National media coverage of swatting has frequently involved the gaming community. When popular Twitch streamer Jaryd “summit1g” Lazar was swatted in July 2016, there was a frenzy of coverage, including from national news agencies. The local TV coverage of the event and swatting itself have over 1.2 million combined views on YouTube.

It’s not just a gaming community problem, though. Swatting became so prevalent in Los Angeles that according to a former high-ranking law enforcement official in the area, a group of police officials held meetings to determine the best course of action to eliminate these types of hoaxes. The collective considered trying to change the term swatting to something else to make it less appealing.

Additionally, a group of Washington-based lawmakers wrote a bill in 2015, dubbed the “Anti-Swatting Act of 2015.” This bill reportedly passed through the House of Representatives but did not pass the Senate floor. Among the bill’s cosponsors was Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat who was a victim of swatting in response to her proposal to make it a federal crime.

After the incident, summit1g echoed Rogers’ sentiments.

“Literally all they’re doing is making cops waste their resources,” he said, “and putting people in danger.”

That came to a head Thursday. Lives have been changed forever, all for the worse.