Fatal ‘Swatting’ Episode in Kansas Raises Quandary: Who Is to Blame?
When the police surrounded a house in Wichita, Kan., late Thursday, they expected to find a gunman who told a 911 dispatcher that he was holding his mother and brother at gunpoint after shooting his father in the head.
But no crime had been committed at that house, and the man who would be fatally shot by an officer moments later was not the person who had called. The suspected caller, who was arrested on Friday and has a history of making false police reports, was actually about 1,300 miles away, in Los Angeles.
Both the Wichita police and the man in the house were pawns in a hoax called “swatting,” in which people report made-up crimes in hopes of creating a spectacle and getting a SWAT team deployed. And Thursday’s iteration of the ruse, which is thought to have been the first to end in a fatality, raised the thorny question of who, ultimately, bears responsibility for an innocent man’s death in a prank gone horribly wrong.
“This is a national trend,” said Deputy Chief Troy Livingston of the Wichita Police Department at a news conference last week. “We’re not the only community dealing with this type of incident.”
Swattings can cause serious disruption and property damage, but usually no bloodshed. There are tragic exceptions: a police chief who was shot and wounded by a homeowner in Oklahoma, a man seriously injured by rubber bullets in Maryland. But the lethal end to the shooting in Kansas, which claimed the life of Andrew Finch, a 28-year-old father of two, creates a new legal quandary without easy answers.
The man arrested in connection with the Wichita case, Tyler R. Barriss, 25, was a known swatter. He was sentenced to two years in a California jail for phoning in false bomb threats in 2015 to the ABC Studios in Glendale, prompting an evacuation and a search with police dogs. He was released from jail in August, after serving another sentence for violating a protection order.
Mr. Finch’s mother, Lisa Finch, said in an interview on Sunday that both the officer who fired the shot and the swatter who lied to police should be charged with murder for her son’s death.
“I think the whole city government should be held accountable,” Ms. Finch said. “Don’t they do training for swat incidences?”
Ms. Finch said her son, who worked at a fast-food restaurant, had been using his phone in the living room on Thursday evening when he heard noises outside and went to investigate.
“He was looking to protect this place,” Ms. Finch said. “He took such good care of family.”
But unbeknown to Mr. Finch, Wichita police officers were staking out the home thinking there was a hostage situation underway. Body-camera footage released by the department shows Mr. Finch appearing in the doorway, officers yelling commands from a distance and, moments later, the pop of a single gunshot fired by a seven-year veteran of the Wichita police force.
“My son would have not opened the door had he known there were cops out there,” Ms. Finch said. “Not one time did they announce themselves. Not one time.”
Chief Livingston said Mr. Finch, who was unarmed and apparently not the intended target of the online prank, did not immediately comply with officers’ commands and moved his hands to his waistline, leading one officer to fear he had drawn a weapon.
State and local authorities are investigating the shooting, but police officers are seldom charged for on-duty shootings.
The law allows the police to use deadly force when an officer reasonably believes, given the information at the time he pulls the trigger, that his life or someone else’s life is in imminent danger. The Wichita officers had been told, wrongly, that they were encountering an armed hostage-taker who had already killed one person and was threatening to burn the house down.
“Nine-one-one is based on the premise of believing the caller: When you call for help, you’re going to get help,” Chief Livingston said. The prank call, he added, “only heightened the awareness of the officers and, we think, led to this deadly encounter.”
It remained unclear on Sunday what charges Mr. Barriss, who was being held without bail in California, might face for his alleged role in the incident. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department listed his charge level as a felony, but spokesmen for the Wichita and Los Angeles police departments declined to detail the charges against him.
A bill introduced in Congress in 2017 by Representative Katherine Clark, Democrat of Massachusetts, would specifically outlaw interstate swatting and impose a maximum sentence of life in prison for fatal instances.
Swatting is rare in Kansas — Chief Livingston said he was not aware of another instance in Wichita, the state’s largest city — and it was not clear what state laws might also apply.
Jean Phillips, a clinical professor of law at the University of Kansas, said she was “sort of perplexed, at least under Kansas law, as to what would happen.” If prosecutors pursue a second-degree murder case against a swatter in state court, she said, the charge could be undermined if the officer’s decision to shoot is deemed lawful.
“I assume that the state is going to try to go after something that’s more than a year or two in prison or probation, because they do have a death,” said Ms. Phillips, a criminal defense lawyer in Kansas for more than 25 years. “I’m not sure how they’re going to get there.”
As Mr. Barriss spent the weekend awaiting extradition proceedings in California, a process that could take days or weeks, a digital trail of what led to the deadly encounter on Thursday began to crystallize.
Several video game players and online news outlets posted screenshots and tweets that they said showed an argument about a petty wager over an online round of the game “Call of Duty.” The screenshots suggested that one person threatened to orchestrate the swatting of an opposing player, and that the opposing gamer egged him on and sent a random address in Wichita that he falsely claimed was his own.
Soon thereafter, a distraught-sounding man called the security desk at Wichita City Hall and gave that address — the Finch family home — to report the fake hostage situation, according to an audio recording of the 911 call released by the police department.
Mr. Keem’s interviewee sounded ambivalent about his complicity in Mr. Finch’s death.
“Yeah, the call was made by me,” the man said. “But as far as the whole incident, you could point the finger at numerous people. You could point the finger at the cop who killed someone.”
A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: In Kansas, a Deadly Hoax Provokes A Thorny Question: Who Is to Blame?. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe