POLITICS

Threat that draws 'huge' police response believed to be case of 'swatting'

05/26/2015 05:19 EDT | Updated 05/26/2016 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - A threatening phone call that triggered a "huge" police response and caused five schools northwest of Toronto to activate emergency plans appears to have been a hoax — and police want the public to know they aren't pleased.

Hundreds of students, along with staff, had to be held in a secure area in Brampton, Ont., for hours on Tuesday while numerous Peel Region police officers searched inside and around the schools before determining the threat was likely a case of "swatting," where someone makes a false call to police in order spark a significant response.

"This is not a joke," Const Lily Fitzpatrick told The Canadian Press. "This is a huge amount of resources that are deployed to an area because public safety is our number one concern. Somebody who does this, they're not a hero, they're not funny, they've got nothing to be proud of."

Swatting is not a new phenomenon and there have been a number of recent incidents in Ontario.

Police in Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto, are currently investigating a call over the weekend in which a man said his father had shot a family member, but police arriving at a residence found two adults and two children surprised to see officers breaking down their door.

Meanwhile, police in Niagara Region are looking into a call that made threats of violence towards a mall on Tuesday morning, resulting in its evacuation. Police in that incident said a man later called back to advise the incident had been a hoax.

Peel Region officers have also previously dealt with swatting, but usually on a smaller scale, where they've responded to hoax reports typically involving single homes.

Tuesday's call, because it affected five schools, was far more serious, Fitzpatrick said.

Police got a call around 8:15 a.m. from someone who said they had "armed themselves with weapons" and were going to go to a school where their intention was to "harm people," Fitzpatrick said.

Officers arrived at Gordon Graydon Senior Public School within three minutes of the call and the building was placed under lockdown. Four other schools in the area went into hold-and-secure mode.

Because the school day hadn't begun yet, only some staff and a few students were in the school at the centre of the alleged threat and were brought to a secure area.

Hundreds of students and staff were then re-routed to an area of a local mall parking lot which was secured by police, where they waited on school buses and city transit buses as the situation was investigated.

"We had officers from uniformed patrol, the neighbourhood policing unit, our bike unit officers, tactical, canine and officers from the 22 Division Criminal Investigation Bureau," said Fitzpatrick. "There was lots of officers from six different units."

Each of the five schools and their perimeters were scoured by officers until, around 11:10 a.m., police determined that the threat appeared to be unfounded, said Fitzpatrick.

"We can't 100 per cent rule out the fact that somebody may have tried to make a legitimate threat and police response was too quick and scared them off, however, everything that investigators have seen so far leads them to think that it is quite possibly a swatting situation," she said.

Investigators are now working to identify the caller and are looking to lay charges, Fitzpatrick said.

"There's so many people that are profoundly affected by something like this," she said. "Every student, every parent of every student, every staff member and every family member of those staff members have been victimized by this. And that's in addition to the huge waste of resources that should be there to legitimately protect the public."

Anyone charged and convicted in Tuesday's swatting incident could face significant fines and/or incarceration, Fitzpatrick said.