Pete Marovich Images/file 2014
It was supposed to be a quiet evening. The kids had gone to bed and US Representative Katherine Clark and her husband had settled in, watching “Veep,” on Sunday night.
Suddenly, police lights engulfed their Melrose home.
Clark was startled to find cruisers blocking both ends of her street and police officers, “some with long guns,” on her front lawn. An officer told her they had received a report of an active shooter at her house — a false report, it turns out, possibly prompted by her legislation that would go after similar pranks.
“It’s a pretty terrifying sight at 10 o’clock, after a nice weekend with your family,” she said.
In an interview, Clark said she believes she was the victim of a practice known as swatting — maliciously calling in a false report to police designed to elicit a large law enforcement response, like a heavily armed SWAT team.
Clark said she assumes she was targeted because she has spoken out on the issue. She is the sponsor of the Interstate Swatting Hoax Act, which would make it a federal crime to spur an emergency response by any law enforcement agency without cause.
A Melrose police spokesman, John Guilfoil, said the department received a recorded telephone call with a computer-generated voice at 9:57 p.m. on its business line. The call, Guilfoil said, referred to “shots fired and an active shooter” at Clark’s address.
He said Melrose police officers, but not a SWAT team, responded to the address, spoke with the homeowner, and determined the call was hoax and there was no danger.
Guilfoil said the department is investigating.
“Certainly when you have an apparent false report that is intended to raise the alarm of the police department, one could infer that someone or some entity was trying to elicit a large police response,” he said.
Clark, a 52-year-old Democrat who has made fighting cyber abuse one of her top priorities since arriving in Congress in 2013, said she learned about swatting from news reports and some of the victims of severe online harassment with whom her office has been working.
Swatting has been a tactic used by, among others, some in the online video gaming community.
Swatting incidents have targeted a wide range of people, from high-profile celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher to a New Jersey state legislator pushing for an anti-swatting bill, according to published reports.
Eight years ago, the FBI sounded the alarm about the practice, but it hasn’t gone away.
Her bill, which was introduced in November and has bipartisan support, would set up a regime of fines and punishments, including up to life in prison if death results from the swatting.
Clark said it’s important to have a federal crime that specifically fits the criminal behavior of maliciously trying to elicit a heavy law enforcement response. That, she said, could help law enforcement deter and prosecute acts of swatting.
US Representative Patrick Meehan, Republican of Pennsylvania, a former prosecutor and a cosponsor of the Clark bill, said the threat associated with swatting is very real. Homes and schools in his district, he said, have been targets of the malicious practice.
He said the bill would give federal authorities a better framework to go after swatting, which sometimes takes place across state lines.
Boston’s former police commissioner, Edward F. Davis, a security consultant whose clients have included the Globe, said swatting is “a serious problem across the nation.”
He said it’s terrifying for the victims and draws limited law enforcement resources, meaning they won’t be available for a real emergency.
Swatting is “something that really does need severe legislative penalties,” he said.
Clark said it is fortunate that in her situation the emergency response to the fake report did not end in violence.
“But that’s not always the case. So the criminal punishments go up in accordance with what harm is inflicted,” she said. “And it also provides that, if we can catch the perpetrator, [prosecutors] also have the ability to make them pay for the cost of these events.”
Clark, who represents cities and towns from Winthrop to Woburn to Ashland, praised the Melrose police, but said the experience Sunday night was deeply disconcerting.
Asked if she would be less vocal about the issue now, she laughed and said no.
“If that was the intent of calling in this event,” Clark said, “I think they have underestimated my commitment to making sure that we do stop this practice.”
Clark said she had been very sympathetic to people who have been the victims of swatting before Sunday night but now fully understands what it’s like.
The experience, she said, “will really cause me to double down.”
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