Synagogue ‘swatting’ prompts legislation to increase penalties in Arizona
Following hoax calls last year that triggered police responses to Arizona synagogues, a Republican proposal would increase the penalties for “swatting” in the Grand Canyon State.
Arizona is one of 12 states that have been the target of hoax calls to police or suicide hotlines where a man on the line says he aims to kill himself and others with a bomb, prompting a police response.
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The online form of harassment, known as swatting, features a hoaxer tricking police to respond to fake emergencies or bomb threats, often with heavily armed SWAT teams. Swatting is frequently used to harass individual people at their residences. Last year, the incidents were used to target places of worship.
The New York Times reported last year that 26 such swatting calls were made in 12 states. The Arizona Mirror was the first to report some of those calls targeted Arizona congregations.
House Bill 2508 adds schools and places of worship to the state’s false reporting law. It also increases the penalties for those who violate it from a class 1 misdemeanor to a class 6 felony, the least severe felony charge in Arizona law.
“I think the people of Arizona want more justice,” by Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, the bill’s sponsor, told before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Sarah Kader with the Arizona chapter of the Anti-Defamation League told the committee that 12 synagogues were targeted between July and September last year, all eliciting a SWAT response. Kader went to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office looking to address the growing issue, and the result was Gress’ bill.
Kader previously told the Mirror that the ADL itself was targeted by a swatting call, as was at least one news organization. Swatting of schools also saw a drastic increase last year, with schools all across the nation being hit by a “coordinated” campaign.
“These very acts are intended to intimidate people,” Gress told the committee. “That’s what these (calls) are doing, and they are becoming much more nefarious than pranks.”
Local politicians have also found themselves swept up in swatting calls. Rusty Bowers, at the time the speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, was the victim of one, according to reporting by the Washington Post.
Kader shared with the committee that her own synagogue was the target of one of these calls, and her daughter was at the synagogue’s daycare when the SWAT team showed up at what it thought was an emergency. Kader said that the perpetrators looked for synagogues that live-streamed services so they could watch the swatting happen in real time.
No one was hurt in any of the Arizona swatting incidents at synagogues.
The bill faced pushback from Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, who said the legislature should not be increasing criminal penalties. He suggested that prosecutors could add other charges that would be more appropriate, such as reckless endangerment.
Kolodin, who is Jewish himself, also said he was unaware of the swatting of local synagogues.
As the bill currently stands, a police response would not necessarily be required in order to trigger the law. Gress said that he anticipates amending the bill to remedy that issue.
Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist for the ACLU, said the organization is concerned with increasing the criminal penalty, as the legislation could sweep in other types of speech. Rodriguez cited a recent decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that found a man who was arrested after he posted a joke on Facebook about police shooting people with COVID-19 did not rise to the level of a true threat.
Democratic members voted against the measure, while Kolodin voted present in order to prevent the bill from being defeated.
“I am not going to allow my concern for my faith to override my judgment as an elected official or cause me to contribute further to this distortion of the law,” Kolodin said when explaining his vote. “We need punishments to fit the crime, not just throw the book at everything.”
The hoax calls come as incidents of antisemitism have continued to rise nationally, reaching their highest levels since 1979.
Local police and the FBI are currently investigating the calls.