Princeton Police Chief: Swatting More Than Prank Call

By Michael Hill

A caller said he had a rifle and a bomb at a Pizza Hut in Fort Lee.

Two calls said a woman had guns at Johnson Park School in Princeton.

A call to state Assemblyman Paul Moriarty’s South Jersey house said a shooter had killed a man.

Dispatcher: Why are you doing this today?

Caller: Doesn’t matter. It’s none of your business. I’ll kill, I’ll kill them both, all right now.

Dispatcher: Sir, don’t do that, OK? Don’t do that. We’re going to try to get you help. OK?

Caller: No [beep] help for me right now. I’ll kill my help.

All over the state — bogus calls for help, no one hurt, no one killed, but plenty of opportunity for both as SWAT or “Special Weapons and Tactics” officers show up heavily armed.

“And when you’re responding through a community, a congested community through traffic and you’re bring all these resources to bear, there’s many things that can go wrong. There’s a host of liabilities that this creates and it’s definitely scary,” said Princeton Police Chief Nick Sutter.

But, the chief says so far — even with two incidents in one day — one swatting has not deprived another call across town of resources.

No place has been hit with more swatting incidents than Princeton. The chief says a dozen since March. He calls them evil and worse.

“There’s fear and I don’t use this word often, but it’s terrorism,” Sutter said.

Law enforcers wonder about the callers’ motives. Just for laughs, mischief or something sinister to gauge response times and resources.

“That’s an absolute high consideration of mine,” Sutter said. “It would be naive and not prudent to consider that this is not something bigger.”

Chief Sutter says the swatting calls to Princeton police and across the state have varied.

“But yet the way in which they’re placed are similar,” he said. That gives some clues. “Yeah, for me there’s a definite connection or pattern that’s definitely being examined,” he said, adding that’s “very helpful.”

The chief says law enforcers at the local, county, state and federal level now are sharing notes and pooling resources to track the callers who are using technology to make it hard, if not impossible, to identify and find them.

At Princeton University’s Applied Sciences Department, it boils down to accountability versus privacy. Professor Prateek Mittal says the Internet makes it easy for users to be anonymous. He says the FBI has the capability to track domestic calls but overseas ones might be impossible.

“So the Internet, and our communications system in general, has not been designed with security and privacy in mind. So our systems have a lot of vulnerabilities that attackers and adversaries are able to exploit to be anonymous on the Internet. Thus, based on current technology, it’s very difficult for law enforcement and national intelligence level agencies to infer the identities of attackers on the Internet,” Mittal said.

“We’re working vigilantly to bring this to an end,” Sutter said.

Chief Sutter doesn’t put a dollar figure on the cost of SWAT responding to false alarms but he says the emotional toll, trauma and terror are high.

“It takes this whole idea of a prank as we said earlier to a level that’s just unconscionable,” he said.