First published in the Jan. 21 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Police searched Burbank’s Joaquin Miller Elementary School on Wednesday after a caller falsely reported planting a bomb on campus, temporarily disrupting classes at the school.
On Wednesday morning, an unidentified man called the front office of the school, telling staff that he had placed a bomb somewhere on campus. School officials immediately contacted the Burbank Police Department.
“Officers responded and conducted a thorough search of the school, they did not locate a bomb, nor a threat of any kind. No arrests were reported, and the incident remains under investigation,” said Sgt. Brent Fekety, BPD’s Communications Director.
Officers were on the scene within four minutes of receiving the threat, Fekety said.
“Occasionally, the Burbank Police Department receives fake emergency calls involving reports of a shooting, stabbing, bomb threat or other emergencies which are commonly referred to as ‘swatting’ incidents,” police said. “These calls involve the action of making a prank call to bring about the dispatch of a large number of armed police officers, or Special Weapons and Tactics teams — SWAT — to a particular address. This type of false reporting of an emergency is illegal and extremely dangerous.”
After learning of the incident and clearing the school site of any threats, Burbank’s Police Department quickly released a news brief, clarifying the details of the incident and dispelling panic.
During a Police Commission meeting Wednesday night, Commissioner Romik Hacobian thanked Fekety for keeping the community up to date.
“I had friends reach out to me maybe 10 minutes before in panic because they had children at the school. With the prompt response, it was perfect timing. I emailed it to them, texted it to everyone. It relieved a lot of anxiety,” Hacobian said.
Swatting has been on the rise since the inception of phone hacking technology in 2008. Perpetrators often use this spoofing software to make it appear that an emergency call is coming from a targeted victim’s phone. It is unclear as to whether similar technology was used during the Wednesday incident at Joaquin Miller.
“The FBI looks at these crimes as a public safety issue,” said Kevin Kolbye, an assistant special agent for the FBI, in a recent statement. “It’s only a matter of time before somebody gets seriously injured as a result of one of these incidents.”
There have already been close calls. A police officer was injured in a car accident during an emergency response that turned out to be a swatting incident, Kolbye said, and some unsuspecting victims — caught off guard when SWAT teams suddenly arrived on their doorstep — have suffered mild heart attacks.
“The victims are scared and taken by surprise,” he said. Law enforcement personnel, meanwhile, rush to the scene of a swatting incident on high alert. “They believe they have a violent subject to apprehend or an innocent victim to rescue,” Kolbye explained. “It’s a dangerous situation any way you look at it.”
Swatting incidents are also expensive and can cost thousands of dollars every time a SWAT team is called out. A recent trend is so-called celebrity swatting, where the targeted victims are well-known actors, musicians and video game players. Several swatting incidents have been recorded during live video-gaming streams on Twitch.com.
“The Burbank Police Department takes this issue very seriously and will investigate all false reports of emergencies. This type of false reporting of an emergency is extremely dangerous and places first responders, as well as members of the community at risk and ties up emergency resources,” Fekety said.
The motivations of Wednesday’s swatting incident are still undetermined. Anyone with information on the case is urged to call BPD at (818) 238-3210.