Michelle Lucas, a community activist and grandmother of four, was devastated when she was charged with two felonies for allegedly passing a counterfeit bill. Our investigation uncovered evidence that forced prosecutors to admit the police had made a mistake and had an unexpected impact on her case.
Ijeoma Oluo was boarding an early morning flight at Boston’s Logan Airport when she got a call from a number she didn’t recognize. A 911 dispatcher from Washington state was on the line: someone had reported a double murder at the author and activist’s home.
Oluo was almost certain she’d just been “swatted,” meaning someone had made a false report of extreme violence at her residence to prompt an overwhelming response by law enforcement. The term comes from the acronym for the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams that deal with active shootings, armed robberies or hostage scenarios.
Oluo told the dispatcher her 17-year-old son was home alone, and that no guns were in the house. Even so, she panicked. Having written about encounters between police and people of color, she was acutely aware of what could go wrong.
“I was terrified they were going to come in guns blazing. I was bawling,” she said. “To send cops to the home of a black person — expecting dead bodies and guns — is really risking someone’s life.”
Anyone with a grudge and someone’s address can make a ‘swatting’ call, but what was once a niche prank played by gamers has become a favored means of terrorizing famous, controversial and vulnerable people. It has also become more organized in recent years, with online forums and chat rooms dedicated to targeted attacks on individuals, including YouTube personalities, tech executives, activists, authors and journalists.
Law enforcement agencies and city officials around the country have responded with anti-swatting procedures and tools to blunt this weaponization of the 911 system. In Seattle, the police department has launched a three-pronged approach that includes special training for officers and 911 operators and — a first for the U.S. — a registry for residents who think they may become swatting targets. The registry gives first responders a warning that an emergency call about a violent situation may be a hoax.
After a year of honing these procedures, Seattle police are sharing their know-how with law enforcement agencies throughout the country, while calling on lawmakers to make swatting a federal crime.
“This is not an accident. It’s intentional behavior intended to punish people for who they are, where they work, the color of their skin,” said Seattle PD’s public affairs director, Sean Whitcomb. “It’s happening every day in America. It’s awful for us and it’s awful for the community.”
The sudden arrival of unneeded law enforcement officers can be defused quickly, but at worst, it can result in injury or death. In December 2017, California man Tyler Barriss made a hoax 911 call about a hostage situation at an address in Wichita, Kansas, that resulted in police fatally shooting an innocent man.
At the time of the fatal swatting in Wichita, Seattle PD was already dealing with “dozens of attempted swattings” every month, according to Whitcomb. Targets included executives at some of the high-profile technology companies in the city, which include Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple, as well as video game streamers.
Swatting is not only a safety risk for targets, but also to police, both in terms of reputation damage and the costly waste of police time.
“Swatting can really tie up city resources,” said Seattle resident Naveed Jamali, a former intelligence officer in the United States Navy Reserve who now co-chairs Seattle Police Department’ Swatting Mitigation Advisory Committee. “Then from a human perspective, there’s a huge risk of violence. So there’s a huge liability potential to the city and it’s also weaponizing a police force against private citizens.”
In June 2018, a Seattle resident who feared a Wichita-style tragedy asked the department to pre-register his address as a swatting risk. The request gave Whitcomb the idea for a city-wide registry, and the registry became part of a unique three-pronged protocol. In September, the police department also established the swatting advisory committee, which includes police, prosecutors, and 911 dispatchers, as well as gamers and tech workers from the city’s large tech community.
Announced in October 2018, the Seattle swatting protocol includes two training measures already used in some cities, including Los Angeles, where swatting of celebrities has occurred sporadically for years. As in L.A., Seattle police teach workers in the 911 center to identify potential swatting calls, and ensure responding officers are aware of the potential for a hoax and take a cool, cautious approach to potential confrontations.
The most innovative part of the protocol, the registry, lets members of the public pre-register their addresses and contact details in an online database via a secure portal. To date, the city has registered 57 profiles of people who believe that they may be swatted. So far, four of them have been targeted by swatters.
The Seattle protocol has already been replicated elsewhere, including Wichita. Earlier this month, representatives from Seattle PD spoke to the New York Police Department to discuss a joint working group dedicated to swatting, sources familiar with the matter told NBC News.
Seattle’s police chief Carmen Best told NBC News she was “reaching out to all my networks” including the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Human and Civil Rights Committee to try and bring other agencies on board.
In September, NBC News toured Seattle’s 911 center to observe a simulated emergency call to an address that was flagged as a swatting risk.
When the call came in, the dispatcher entered the address into her computer and a red box appeared on screen containing the all-caps warning “SWATTING CONCERNS.” The message urged the dispatcher to check the profile for the property, pre-registered by the target via the secure portal, for additional information and contact details.
Even if an address isn’t pre-registered, dispatchers are trained to look for clues that a call might be swatting. One indicator that a call about a shooting or other violent incident might be bogus is if it comes via the department’s non-emergency phone line rather than 911.
If necessary, the dispatcher can then alert responding officers to the potential for swatting. Officers will still typically respond to the call but they will deprioritize it or change their tactics.
“They are showing up to verify everyone is safe, not showing up with the assumption that this is Point Break,” said Whitcomb, referring to an iconic action movie featuring violent bank heists.
Oluo was one of the first test cases. A few weeks before she was swatted, she found out her contact details and social security number had been posted to a website dedicated to this type of harassment. She told NBC News that she called the police departments in Seattle and Shoreline, the suburb where she lives, to warn them that she might be targeted.
When the swatting call came in, emergency dispatchers saw her address was a swatting risk and called ahead, using the number uploaded to the registry, to gauge the legitimacy of the claims made by the 911 caller.
Six officers, four of whom were armed with rifles, still showed up at Oluo’s home at 6 a.m. But because they knew the address was a swatting risk and had spoken to Oluo, they came to the door without their rifles drawn. They asked her son Malcolm some questions and swept the house to verify no one had been killed. It was all over within minutes.
“It would have been a very different response if I hadn’t pre-registered,” said Oluo. “Just knowing the cops are coming makes a huge difference.”
In June this year, another black journalist on the other side of the country found out what the police response can be like without anti-swatting measures. Leonard Pitts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning nationally syndicated columnist who is often critical of right-wing stances, was swatted at his home outside Washington, D.C.
Pitts told NBC News he was roused by a phone call from local police in the early morning hours on June 30. They had received a report he had shot and killed his wife and was threatening to kill police officers.
“At that point my wife sat up in bed and asked what was going on,” he said. “I told her, ‘I’ve killed you.’”
Police officers ordered Pitt to exit his home, kneel, and put his hands on the back of his head. He did so — still wearing his Captain America pajamas — and was handcuffed and escorted to a police car.
The police searched his house and quickly realized his wife was not dead.While the situation was resolved peacefully, it has renewed Pitts’ concern for his personal safety.
“It boiled down to getting me killed by the cops,” he told NBC News. “I’m not exactly Billy Badass with a gun here, but they may not have seen it that way.”
From ‘doxxing’ to ‘swatting’
The swattings of Oluo and Pitts both appear to have stemmed from a site on the dark web dedicated to publishing the personal information of targets — a practice known as “doxxing” — and tracking when they have been successfully swatted.
NBC News is declining to name the website, which is under investigation by multiple agencies including the FBI, NYPD and HSI, to avoid amplifying its message and incite further targets.
The site, reviewed by NBC News, appears to feature the contact details of hundreds of people from all walks of life including gamers, Facebook employees, academics, activists and journalists including Oluo and Pitts. Among the more high-profile individuals listed are former president George W. Bush, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, TV host Jimmy Kimmel, actor Robert De Niro and Gina Haspel, head of the Central Intelligence Agency.
The website is accessible via Tor, a specialized browser designed to obscure one’s digital trail that can be used for a variety of purposes.
Information about people on the list often includes home addresses, emails and phone numbers. It also sometimes lists information about relatives. It’s not clear where the information is collected, but some of it is available on commercial databases.
In chat-logs from the site reviewed by NBC News, users encourage each other to swat journalists as well as unsuspecting live-streamers, trade tips on disguising their voices and evading police detection, and celebrate when one of their targets is visited by police.
Each time a person has been successfully swatted, the site marks that person’s entry with a distinctive icon — a gun — and links to media coverage about that incident.
Other victims whose swattings have been noted on the site include Edward Carswell, a New York state “Doomsday prepper” known as “Prepper Nurse;” a trans woman YouTuber known as Rosie O’Kelly, who lives in Santa Rosa, California, and a top Facebook executive.
Once a person is listed on the site, they can be targeted repeatedly.
Oluo faced a second threat, possibly by the same person, against one of her public book events. The call, portions of which NBC News has heard, contained racist and violent threats against her.
Again, Seattle police reacted cautiously, sending plain-clothed police officers to the venue to determine whether the threat was real without creating panic. No real threat was detected, but the incident was referred to a federal law enforcement agency.
On top of the 911 threats, Oluo had dozens of food delivery people showing up at her home requesting payment for pizza and Chinese food she hadn’t ordered. Her phone messages were, she said, flooded with unsolicited “dick pics.”
“It was a constant reminder we weren’t safe,” she said.
She has since changed her residence and her phone numbers.
The group behind the doxxing site is small — in the last year, the active chat users have hovered in the tens — but their potential to do harm is outsized. And while trolls and secret harassment campaigns have been a fact of online life nearly as long as the internet been around, this group is operating in a time where online attacks on journalists and activists are common, and encouraged by the highest office.
“One thing you can say about those kinds of bad actors is that they’re fundamentally opportunistic,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University who has written books on the history and evolution of online trolls and harassment. “They’re operating in a climate where: Who’s going to cry when journalists get attacked?”
Phillips explained that the doxxing site and chats were “a more violent articulation” of previous online harassment campaigns against journalists, including one waged early in 2019 in which trolls, and eventually even Donald Trump Jr., barraged Twitter accounts belonging to recently laid-off journalists with the message “Learn to Code,” then denied any connection to the wave of death threats and gore that accompanied many of the messages. “It’s precisely the kind of climate where attacks against journalists are not going to elicit very much sympathy by a significant percentage of the population.”
Despite her ordeal, Oluo remains undeterred in her activism and writing.
“I’ll acclimate to this level of terrorism because that’s what you do when you do this work,” she said.
“This is par for the course, especially in a political environment as toxic as we are living in now,” he said.
‘A serious crime’
While swatting has been a known scourge for years, it is notoriously difficult to investigate, charge, and prosecute at either the local or federal level.
In most states, it is a misdemeanor to make a false 911 call. At the federal level, there is currently no specific anti-swatting statute, although one was first proposed back in 2015. Officials have used other related laws to prosecute swatting suspects successfully, including obstruction of justice, access device fraud, interstate threats or extortion, computer misuse, and the malicious conveying of false information.
In the Wichita case, perpetrator Tyler Barriss ultimately pleaded guilty to dozens of federal charges, ranging from “conveying false information concerning the use of an explosive device” to “threats to injure in interstate commerce.” He was sentenced to 20 years in jail in March this year.
Kevin Kolbye, who worked on numerous swatting cases during his nearly three decades as an FBI special agent, has estimated that swatting incidents have risen from 400 in 2011 to more than 1,000 nationwide in 2019. But he says it’s difficult to know the true count because swatting isn’t a category that is reported and recorded in the FBI’s database of crime statistics.
“Most of that swatting is called a ‘false police report’ or could be a ‘terroristic threat,” said Kolbye, who is now the assistant chief of police for Arlington, Texas. “A lot of those aren’t data that’s grouped together where we have a real national focus.”
The Seattle Police Department hopes to change that and has spent the last few months trying to define and quantify the problem so it can measure the success of mitigation efforts.
The Swatting Mitigation Advisory Committee combed through two years of records looking for hoax bomb threats or fake reports of shootings that led to a police response. Its analysis found that SPD received 63 swatting calls, which required 42 hours of officers’ time.
To more easily capture this data in the future, the committee and police force are pushing to create a standardized definition of swatting that can be incorporated into the software it uses to log crimes. They are also inviting other major cities to adopt their definition and prevention measures.
“Without numbers, swatting incidents are being treated like one-off crimes instead of a concerted effort to silence political speech. It’s being done nationally and internationally. We can’t have individual police departments working on it,” said Oluo.
The ultimate goal is to get congress to make swatting a federal offense.
“If we can speak a common language, we can hopefully press lawmakers to have a federal definition and have swatting become a set crime with set penalties,” Whitcomb said.
“It’s not a hoax. It’s not a prank. It’s a serious crime that can have extremely detrimental effects,” added Best.
On a Thursday afternoon in January, Robert Julian-Borchak Williams was in his office at an automotive supply company when he got a call from the Detroit Police Department telling him to come to the station to be arrested. He thought at first that it was a prank.
An hour later, when he pulled into his driveway in a quiet subdivision in Farmington Hills, Mich., a police car pulled up behind, blocking him in. Two officers got out and handcuffed Mr. Williams on his front lawn, in front of his wife and two young daughters, who were distraught. The police wouldn’t say why he was being arrested, only showing him a piece of paper with his photo and the words “felony warrant” and “larceny.”
His wife, Melissa, asked where he was being taken. “Google it,” she recalls an officer replying.
The police drove Mr. Williams to a detention center. He had his mug shot, fingerprints and DNA taken, and was held overnight. Around noon on Friday, two detectives took him to an interrogation room and placed three pieces of paper on the table, face down.
“When’s the last time you went to a Shinola store?” one of the detectives asked, in Mr. Williams’s recollection. Shinola is an upscale boutique that sells watches, bicycles and leather goods in the trendy Midtown neighborhood of Detroit. Mr. Williams said he and his wife had checked it out when the store first opened in 2014.
The detective turned over the first piece of paper. It was a still image from a surveillance video, showing a heavyset man, dressed in black and wearing a red St. Louis Cardinals cap, standing in front of a watch display. Five timepieces, worth $3,800, were shoplifted.
“Is this you?” asked the detective.
The second piece of paper was a close-up. The photo was blurry, but it was clearly not Mr. Williams. He picked up the image and held it next to his face.
“No, this is not me,” Mr. Williams said. “You think all black men look alike?”
Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.
A faulty system
A nationwide debate is raging about racism in law enforcement. Across the country, millions are protesting not just the actions of individual officers, but bias in the systems used to surveil communities and identify people for prosecution.
Facial recognition systems have been used by police forces for more than two decades. Recent studies by M.I.T. and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, have found that while the technology works relatively well on white men, the results are less accurate for other demographics, in part because of a lack of diversity in the images used to develop the underlying databases.
Last year, during a public hearing about the use of facial recognition in Detroit, an assistant police chief was among those who raised concerns. “On the question of false positives — that is absolutely factual, and it’s well-documented,” James White said. “So that concerns me as an African-American male.”
This month, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM announced they would stop or pause their facial recognition offerings for law enforcement. The gestures were largely symbolic, given that the companies are not big players in the industry. The technology police departments use is supplied by companies that aren’t household names, such as Vigilant Solutions, Cognitec, NEC, Rank One Computing and Clearview AI.
Clare Garvie, a lawyer at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology, has written about problems with the government’s use of facial recognition. She argues that low-quality search images — such as a still image from a grainy surveillance video — should be banned, and that the systems currently in use should be tested rigorously for accuracy and bias.
“There are mediocre algorithms and there are good ones, and law enforcement should only buy the good ones,” Ms. Garvie said.
About Mr. Williams’s experience in Michigan, she added: “I strongly suspect this is not the first case to misidentify someone to arrest them for a crime they didn’t commit. This is just the first time we know about it.”
Mr. Williams’s case combines flawed technology with poor police work, illustrating how facial recognition can go awry.
The Shinola shoplifting occurred in October 2018. Katherine Johnston, an investigator at Mackinac Partners, a loss prevention firm, reviewed the store’s surveillance video and sent a copy to the Detroit police, according to their report.
Five months later, in March 2019, Jennifer Coulson, a digital image examiner for the Michigan State Police, uploaded a “probe image” — a still from the video, showing the man in the Cardinals cap — to the state’s facial recognition database. The system would have mapped the man’s face and searched for similar ones in a collection of 49 million photos.
The state’s technology is supplied for $5.5 million by a company called DataWorks Plus. Founded in South Carolina in 2000, the company first offered mug shot management software, said Todd Pastorini, a general manager. In 2005, the firm began to expand the product, adding face recognition tools developed by outside vendors.
When one of these subcontractors develops an algorithm for recognizing faces, DataWorks attempts to judge its effectiveness by running searches using low-quality images of individuals it knows are present in a system. “We’ve tested a lot of garbage out there,” Mr. Pastorini said. These checks, he added, are not “scientific” — DataWorks does not formally measure the systems’ accuracy or bias.
“We’ve become a pseudo-expert in the technology,” Mr. Pastorini said.
In Michigan, the DataWorks software used by the state police incorporates components developed by the Japanese tech giant NEC and by Rank One Computing, based in Colorado, according to Mr. Pastorini and a state police spokeswoman. In 2019, algorithms from both companies were included in a federal study of over 100 facial recognition systems that found they were biased, falsely identifying African-American and Asian faces 10 times to 100 times more than Caucasian faces.
Rank One’s chief executive, Brendan Klare, said the company had developed a new algorithm for NIST to review that “tightens the differences in accuracy between different demographic cohorts.”
After Ms. Coulson, of the state police, ran her search of the probe image, the system would have provided a row of results generated by NEC and a row from Rank One, along with confidence scores. Mr. Williams’s driver’s license photo was among the matches. Ms. Coulson sent it to the Detroit police as an “Investigative Lead Report.”
“This document is not a positive identification,” the file says in bold capital letters at the top. “It is an investigative lead only and is not probable cause for arrest.”
This is what technology providers and law enforcement always emphasize when defending facial recognition: It is only supposed to be a clue in the case, not a smoking gun. Before arresting Mr. Williams, investigators might have sought other evidence that he committed the theft, such as eyewitness testimony, location data from his phone or proof that he owned the clothing that the suspect was wearing.
In this case, however, according to the Detroit police report, investigators simply included Mr. Williams’s picture in a “6-pack photo lineup” they created and showed to Ms. Johnston, Shinola’s loss-prevention contractor, and she identified him. (Ms. Johnston declined to comment.)
Mr. Pastorini was taken aback when the process was described to him. “It sounds thin all the way around,” he said.
Mr. Klare, of Rank One, found fault with Ms. Johnston’s role in the process. “I am not sure if this qualifies them as an eyewitness, or gives their experience any more weight than other persons who may have viewed that same video after the fact,” he said. John Wise, a spokesman for NEC, said: “A match using facial recognition alone is not a means for positive identification.”
The Friday that Mr. Williams sat in a Detroit police interrogation room was the day before his 42nd birthday. That morning, his wife emailed his boss to say he would miss work because of a family emergency; it broke his four-year record of perfect attendance.
In Mr. Williams’s recollection, after he held the surveillance video still next to his face, the two detectives leaned back in their chairs and looked at one another. One detective, seeming chagrined, said to his partner: “I guess the computer got it wrong.”
They turned over a third piece of paper, which was another photo of the man from the Shinola store next to Mr. Williams’s driver’s license. Mr. Williams again pointed out that they were not the same person.
Mr. Williams asked if he was free to go. “Unfortunately not,” one detective said.
Mr. Williams was kept in custody until that evening, 30 hours after being arrested, and released on a $1,000 personal bond. He waited outside in the rain for 30 minutes until his wife could pick him up. When he got home at 10 p.m., his five-year-old daughter was still awake. She said she was waiting for him because he had said, while being arrested, that he’d be right back.
She has since taken to playing “cops and robbers” and accuses her father of stealing things, insisting on “locking him up” in the living room.
The Williams family contacted defense attorneys, most of whom, they said, assumed Mr. Williams was guilty of the crime and quoted prices of around $7,000 to represent him. Ms. Williams, a real estate marketing director and food blogger, also tweeted at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which took an immediate interest.
“We’ve been active in trying to sound the alarm bells around facial recognition, both as a threat to privacy when it works and a racist threat to everyone when it doesn’t,” said Phil Mayor, an attorney at the organization. “We know these stories are out there, but they’re hard to hear about because people don’t usually realize they’ve been the victim of a bad facial recognition search.”
Two weeks after his arrest, Mr. Williams took a vacation day to appear in a Wayne County court for an arraignment. When the case was called, the prosecutor moved to dismiss, but “without prejudice,” meaning Mr. Williams could later be charged again.
Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor, said a second witness had been at the store in 2018 when the shoplifting occurred, but had not been asked to look at a photo lineup. If the individual makes an identification in the future, she said, the office will decide whether to issue charges.
A Detroit police spokeswoman, Nicole Kirkwood, said that for now, the department “accepted the prosecutor’s decision to dismiss the case.” She also said that the department updated its facial recognition policy in July 2019 so that it is only used to investigate violent crimes.
The department, she said in another statement, “does not make arrests based solely on facial recognition. The investigator reviewed video, interviewed witnesses, conducted a photo lineup.”
On Wednesday, the A.C.L.U. of Michigan filed a complaint with the city, asking for an absolute dismissal of the case, an apology and the removal of Mr. Williams’s information from Detroit’s criminal databases.
The Detroit Police Department “should stop using facial recognition technology as an investigatory tool,” Mr. Mayor wrote in the complaint, adding, “as the facts of Mr. Williams’s case prove both that the technology is flawed and that DPD investigators are not competent in making use of such technology.”
Mr. Williams’s lawyer, Victoria Burton-Harris, said that her client is “lucky,” despite what he went through.
“He is alive,” Ms. Burton-Harris said. “He is a very large man. My experience has been, as a defense attorney, when officers interact with very large men, very large black men, they immediately act out of fear. They don’t know how to de-escalate a situation.”
‘It was humiliating’
Mr. Williams and his wife have not talked to their neighbors about what happened. They wonder whether they need to put their daughters into therapy. Mr. Williams’s boss advised him not to tell anyone at work.
“My mother doesn’t know about it. It’s not something I’m proud of,” Mr. Williams said. “It’s humiliating.”
He has since figured out what he was doing the evening the shoplifting occurred. He was driving home from work, and had posted a video to his private Instagram because a song he loved came on — 1983’s “We Are One,” by Maze and Frankie Beverly. The lyrics go:
I can’t understand
Why we treat each other in this way
Taking up time
With the silly silly games we play
He had an alibi, had the Detroit police checked for one.
Aaron Krolik contributed reporting.
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