House bill would increase penalties for ‘swatting’

      The House has voted to increase the penalties for deliberately reporting someone to law enforcement with the intent or hurting, embarrassing, or intimidating them; a practice commonly referred to as “swatting.”

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Under House Bill 1704 a person would be guilty of making a false report if they intentionally make, or causes to be made to any enforcement organization, a false report that could cause bodily harm as a result of the emergency response. 

      “The bill hinges on the statement that it is with reckless disregard of causing bodily harm to any person as a direct result of an emergency response,” said bill sponsor Lane Roberts (R-Joplin)“It’s an effort to keep people from weaponizing the public safety system to harm other people; sometimes physically, sometimes by reputation or intimidation.”

      “This also deals with the use of the system to humiliate, embarrass, or have people forcibly removed from premises, and this is often aimed at minorities, aimed at religious differences, sexual orientation … recent news has been replete with that kind of conduct,” said Roberts.  “This bill prohibits that kind of use of public safety to harm others, to harm their reputation, to harm them physically, or otherwise damage an individual.”

      Those who make false reports that result in a person being killed or seriously hurt could be charged with a class-B felony, punishable by 5 to 15 years in prison.  Otherwise, false reports of a felony crime would be a class-C felony (up to 7 years in prison) and false reports of a misdemeanor would be a class-B misdemeanor (up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000). 

      Roberts and other legislators have discussed in recent years how incidents of “swatting” seem to have increased, and in some cases those have resulted in deaths and serious injuries.  Roberts’ legislation is the latest attempt to address that.

      “Somebody will call in a false report that generates a response from a police agency, sometimes a SWAT team, which by its very nature, puts people at risk of injury or death, both the police officer and folks inside.”

      His proposal was sent to the Senate with unanimous bipartisan support, 142-0.  Democrats contributed to the language of HB 1704, and Representative Ashley Bland Manlove (D-Kansas City) spoke in support of it.  She said she remembers a recent “swatting” incident that happened just across the state line from her district, in Kansas.

      “Somebody he was on [a] video game with in California was apparently mad that they had lost the game and used an app to deploy SWAT to the man in Overland Park’s house saying, ‘He’s got somebody in the house and they’ve got hostages,’ so SWAT comes in hot immediately.  Unfortunately the young man was a black man,” said Bland Manlove.  “I’ve also heard of this being used, as [Representative Roberts] said, in domestic disputes.  Somebody’s mad that they don’t have the kids or they have to pay child support so then they constantly use the police, filing false reports against the other partner.”

The bill was also the product of bipartisan cooperation, with the inclusion of changes authored by Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City).

      In addition to possible incarceration and fines, violations of the language of HB 1704 could result in civil penalties.   

      “Any person who makes a false report in violation of this section for the purpose of infringing on another person’s rights under the Missouri or the United States Constitution; unlawfully discriminating against another person; causing another person to be expelled from a place in which such person is lawfully located; damaging another person’s reputation or standing within the community, financial, economic, consumer or business partner interests may be required to pay punitive damages to the victim, so it addresses some of the more malicious forms of use of swatting,” said Roberts.

      HB 1704 was sent to the Senate with two full weeks remaining in the legislative session.

House acts to recognize and support 911 dispatchers

      The House has advanced multiple efforts this session to recognize the service of, and difficulties faced by, 911 dispatchers.  Three House bills include language that would add dispatchers to state statute’s definition of “first responders,” which would give them access to more support and benefits. A bipartisan group of lawmakers thinks it’s about time.

Representative Shane Roden (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Legislators say dispatchers are vitally important and are the first link in the chain of emergency response. 

      “They’re the first contact when you call 911,” said Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City), who offered one such amendment to a bill that was sent to the Senate (House Bill 1637).  “Obviously you talk to an operator, and they have to go through a lot of stuff.  They have to go through a lot of turmoil, subject to very high intensity, stressful situations.”

      Because dispatchers aren’t considered “first responders,” they aren’t afforded benefits seen by EMTs, firefighters, police, and others.  That includes health and retirement benefits, but also help to deal with the stress of their job.  Lawmakers think that needs to change.

      Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin), whose extensive law enforcement career included time as Joplin’s police chief and director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said, “I was a police officer for 43 years, and in my wildest nightmare I can’t imagine doing what those people do.”

“The fact that we have failed to recognize them as an integral part of the first response community, I think, is a real disservice to them.  They do their share and then some.  They’re often underappreciated.  They’re just a voice at the end of the radio frequency and people just forget how important they are.  Without them a lot of people get hurt.”

      Representative Chad Perkins (R-Bowling Green) worked for four years as a dispatcher.  He filed one of the bills to make dispatchers “first responders” (House Bill 1676, approved by one House committee).  He said this is the most stressful job in the field.

Representative Robert Sauls (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “The phone is ringing and its multiple phone calls, especially in one of those really high stressful situations.  You’ve got the phone ringing off the hook, a dozen people calling you, someone screaming at you in their greatest moment of need, you can’t visualize what’s happening because you’re not actually there but you’ve got to get that information, you have to take it down well and effectively and then put that information back out clearly to someone else who’s going.  It is an incredibly stressful job.  I think it is the most high-stress job in all of emergency services.  A person has to multitask at a very high level.”

      Roberts agreed, “Any time as a police officer I got a call, particularly for something of an emergency, we got that adrenaline rush that anybody else gets.  The dispatchers got the same adrenaline rush when they’re on the phone.  The difference is that when I got to the scene of that emergency that adrenaline is something that helped me deal with the issue.  The dispatchers, on the other hand, simply hang up and go on to the next emergency.  At night they’ll take all that adrenaline, those chemicals that come with that rush, and take it home with them.  They don’t get that same opportunity to use that.”

      Roberts and Perkins agree that dispatching is more than answering the phone and relaying a call.  Operators receive training for multiple contingencies and emergencies.

      “I’ve heard them do CPR instructions over the phone.  I’ve heard them talk about getting people out of fires over the phone, delivering babies over the phone,” said Roberts.

      Because of the high stress they face, on top of regularly updated training and often low pay, advocates say people who work as dispatchers rarely do it for very long.  Some areas of the state are having a hard time filling vacancies in call centers.

Representative Chad Perkins (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Perkins said by adding them to the definition of “first responders,” they would be afforded more state benefits.  This could be part of a larger effort to recruit and retain operators.

“You have some health-related benefits to it but there’s also, for the most part in the State of Missouri, first responders can retire on the LAGERS system at 55, so that would be something that would also be an added benefit as opposed to having to retire at 60 or 62.”

      Representative Shane Roden (R-Cedar Hill) is a firefighter and paramedic as well as a reserve sheriff’s deputy.  His House Bill 2381 has received initial approval in the House and contains the “first responder” definition language. 

He told his colleagues, “For the dispatchers that have always been there for us this is a step in the right direction, to acknowledge that they are the first responders that they are.”

House approves increased protections for domestic violence victims

      The House has voted to make several changes in state law meant to make victims of domestic violence safer.  It’s sponsored by a man who, during his career in law enforcement, was often frustrated by how laws limited what he could do to help victims.

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “This bill seeks to plug some of the gaps in our laws that allow abusers to circumvent the system and continue to use the system actually to further abuse their victims,” said Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin).

      A key provision of Roberts’ House Bill 1699 would specify that a defendant in an abuse case will be considered to have been notified of an order of protection if they are notified in any reasonable way.  In effect, this would make clear that orders of protection remain place until otherwise ordered by a court.  

      “What happens today is that when somebody files for an ex parte order and then a hearing is scheduled the temporary order stays in effect until the hearing.  If the abuser chooses not to show up in court and later pleads ignorance, he didn’t know what went on in court, there have been some successful defenses to violating the order because of this so-called ignorance.  What this bill does is say that when you get served that temporary, those provisions are going to remain in effect and they don’t expire simply because the hearing is being held.  Those protections go on and the individual can’t plead ignorance.”

      Jennifer Carter Dochler with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said this was the provision that was the most exciting.

      “Although all of them are going to have an important impact … that has been such a gap and has created so many safety issues for survivors,” said Carter Dochler.

      Another portion would allow victims in domestic violence cases to testify via video conference.  Roberts says often, domestic cases are dismissed because victims refuse to testify.

      “It’s not because the victim doesn’t want to be there.  The truth of the matter is in many cases the victim is simply afraid to be in the same room.  The victim does not want the abuser to know where they’re going to be at a particular time, and so it’s important that we give this person some kind of security if we possibly can,” said Roberts.

      Carter Dochler said victims who testify in court now often take great measures to plan for their own safety during that appearance. 

      “When I did court advocacy … we would have the bailiff walk us out and things like that, so just the ability to be able to teleconference in for getting your order of protection is also something that will be incredibly helpful for the safety of the victim, and may also increase the likelihood of somebody feeling comfortable continuing to pursue an order of protection,” said Carter Dochler. 

She said another hurdle for victims testifying for an order of protection, sometimes, is finding childcare, and video conferencing could negate that issue.

      HB 1699 would also specify that courts cannot make a victim or their family reveal in court the victim’s current address or workplace unless necessary. 

“This is something that you’d think would be common sense,” said Roberts.

      Earlier versions of the legislation had caused concern for some lawmakers, specifically that the video testimony provision would violate the constitutional right of accused abusers to face their accusers in court.  Roberts worked with other legislators to deal with issues in the bill leading to the version the House passed.

Representative Ian Mackey (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “I was a little hesitant at first, I’ll admit.  I’m somebody who likes to protect the rights of those who wish to confront their accusers in court,” said Representative Ian Mackey (D), who is an attorney in St. Louis.  “Through conversations with [Roberts] and other folks involved in this issue I think the needle was threaded just as finely and carefully as it could be.  I think this protect victims.  It also protects the accused.  It’s a great product.”

      “The bill handler made some changes and I just think it made a much better bill.  It was a good bill to begin with but it needed some changes.  He did that,” said Robert Sauls, a Kansas City Democrat who is a former Jackson County Prosecutor and public defender. 

      Sauls told Roberts, “I appreciate your willingness to listen and the changes you made.”

      HB 1699 would also specify that when a defendant is ordered to pay the victim’s attorney fees, that order covers the entire proceeding; and that a person convicted of domestic assault who is ordered to attend a batterer-intervention program will be responsible for paying for that program.

      Carter Dochler said the legislation would make a number of small changes in Missouri law each of which would make a big difference in the lives of victims.

      “I really appreciate Representative Roberts’ commitment to finding gaps and figuring out what he can do to close them,” said Carter Dochler. 

      The House voted 147-0 to send the proposal to the Senate.