MASON CITY | Mason City police are still investigating a fake call about an assault that led to a large search of Mason City parks in mid-July.
“We know that we were one of many departments across the state that received this similar, very similar circumstances described to us,” Mason City Police Chief Jeff Brinkley said.
Spoofing or swatting is a type of hoax where an individual or several individuals make prank calls to emergency services.
The call came into a supervisor's office, Brinkley said, and appeared to be credible and legitimate.
“That’s our worst fear, that we stop looking and there really is somebody laying out on a bike trail at East Park, injured, assaulted and we couldn’t find them," Brinkley said.
Some incidents are easier to identify than others but police take every call seriously, according to Brinkley.
“To me, there’s a huge difference between calling because I saw something and I don’t know what’s going on there,” Brinkley said. “Sometimes we may realistically and appropriately send more resources because we don't know what we may be meeting.”
Swatting calls use up resources, distract first responders and cost taxpayers money, Brinkley said.
Brinkley said incidents like these could cost between $500 to $1,000 per hour, not including overtime, fuel and other expenses. Six Mason City officers and a couple dozen others were out during the roughly four-and-a-half hour search, which involved the Mason City Fire Department, Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Office, North Iowa CERT, Iowa State Patrol and Clear Lake Fire Department.
“The part that really concerns me is that we’re exposing our community to risks responding to this and there’s nothing there that happened that would justify that response,” Brinkley said.
Since Brinkley started in Mason City, there have been no swatting calls that have come close to this large of a response.
“There are people who make a game of this,” Brinkley said. “It has had deadly results.”
Brinkley referenced an incident in Kansas in 2017 where a man in Los Angeles allegedly called police to falsely report a crime in progress in Wichita.
The dispute began over a $1.50 bet on a Call of Duty WWII game. As a result, police fatally shot 28-year-old Andrew Finch inside his home. Finch was not involved in the dispute, according to police.
In his career, Brinkley has seen people make fake calls to distract from something else and pull resources to another area of town.
In February 2012, law enforcement received a fake bomb threat call involving Newman Catholic High School. First Citizens National Bank was robbed 45 minutes later.
This was not the case on July 16, Brinkley said, as he didn't think any other departments had a "coinciding crime event that would have been a distraction."
When officers were sent to East Park to investigate, the caller's phone went dead or disconnected multiple times.
Brinkley said the caller was asked to call 911 or dispatch, which might have helped identify where the call was coming from and if it was real.
Officers searched East Park, West Park and trails connected to areas, but were unable to locate the caller.
“Another thing in the scheme of how these things happen that gets in my craw, I guess, is we’re going to what we think is a real incident,” Brinkley said.
“Public safety employees are taking reasonable risks driving, using emergency mode, exceeding speed limits, crossing red lights or whatever the circumstances may be...to think that we could have been involved in an accident and injured a member of our community or injured officers going to something like that is just, to me, unfathomable. That is the most frustrating part.”
Communications Supervisor Heather Hahn, a dispatcher for Cerro Gordo County Sheriff’s Office and Mason City Police Department, said large searches or incidents where multiple agencies are responding can be hectic at dispatch.
She compared organizing and dispatching for searches as similar to events where weapons are involved and homicides. Though Hahn was not on duty at the time of the swatting call and search, she said about three dispatchers were on duty at that time.
“It had to have been insane trying to figure out where they are,” she said.
The call remains under investigation. Mason City police and about 10 other agencies are working with state law enforcement on the case.
“We have precious few public safety resources,” Brinkley said. “We use those as judiciously as we can, but things like this don’t help us be efficient with taxpayer money and taxpayer resources.”
Anyone with information about the incident should contact the Mason City Police Department at 641-421-3636.
Information can also be shared with Mason City Police via private message on Facebook (@MasonCityPD) or by calling North Iowa Crime Stoppers at 800-383-0088.