Two weeks ago, Clara Sorrenti stared down the barrel of an assault rifle after someone impersonating the popular Twitch streamer and transgender activist sent an email to London, Ont., city councillors threatening to kill them.
“Hello, my name is Clara Sorenti…I am a transgender person. I have had enough of you anti transgenders being in positions of power and oppressing us. You finally broke me, you cisgendered transphobic a-holes. When this is over this entire city will remember my name. I have killed my transphobic mother and today I will be going out to city hall and shooting every cis-gendered person I see with a gun I illegally acquired,” reads a copy of the email sent to city councillors obtained by Global News, in which Sorrenti’s last name is misspelled.
The email also included an image of a 9-mm handgun in a box.
Police acted with a show of force, deeming the threat to be credible. Armed officers showed up at Sorrenti’s home and arrested her at gunpoint before police realized several days later that they had been had.
Despite receiving international scrutiny for falling for the false threat, London Police Service’s (LPS) top brass are not saying the show of force was a failure.
“In this case, with that threat, that is the appropriate response,” said London police Deputy Chief Trish McIntyre.
Sorrenti is a popular online streamer on Twitch, where she goes by Keffals and has 45,000 followers who tune into her streams. She often talks about issues facing the transgender community, breaks down politics and provides social commentary.
Swatting is a tactic of calling the police to a live streamer’s home, with armed police showing up on their doorstep in an attempt to intimidate them. Doxxing is publishing private information, like an address or phone number in public.
McIntyre explained to Global News that two alerts and urgent calls from city hall’s security team resulted in LPS jumping in and escalating the situation.
McIntyre told Global News that given the content of the email and the image of the gun, the threat seemed credible and real to the team. In that case, a special officer unit trained with tactical equipment is deployed to the scene.
During the incident, Sorrenti said, she thought she was going to die and feared for her safety. She told Global News she remains shaken up from it weeks later.
Police were scrutinized on social media and by LGBTQ2 advocates for their heavy response.
McIntyre said armed officers called out to Sorrenti and knocked on her door, and in a situation where they believe a gun may be in the home, they will point at the suspect until there is no threat.
“Ms. Sorrenti is called out until we can clear a resident until we are sure that … no longer is there a threat of violence and no longer is there a threat that a firearm is going to be used. That is the procedure in that regard. And as soon as that is quelled, guns are going down,” she said.
Sorrenti was again doxxed earlier this week with a much less severe outcome, with a troll sending pizza deliveries to her hotel instead of tactical units.
Red flags were missed by police, expert says
When recounting how everything unfolded, McIntyre said police didn’t know until several days later that they had made mistakes.
“The whole occurrence was troubling from the outset, I think until we slowed everything down and understood what are we dealing with,” she said.
Hussein Aly, a criminal lawyer in Toronto for the past 15 years, said that while the show of force from the LPS is not uncommon, given what was available to police, they should not have shown up at Sorrenti’s doorstep.
“They were dealing with a massive threat here that they perceived as real, but they definitely should have been more diligent. And it looks like if they did a couple of computer checks or if they made a couple of phone calls, this could have been defused and discovered to have been false. So that being the case, I think that it shouldn’t have occurred,” he said.
Moreover, Aly noted that things could’ve ended far worse than simply arresting Sorrenti.
“Any time you have this type of show of force, someone could get injured, someone could be killed,” he said.
Dating back to March 27, Sorrenti and her family were targeted by hate online and were doxxed. At that time, she said she and her brother told the LPS that they wanted to be put on a “no swatting list,” foreshadowing what would eventually happen, but said they were told that no such list existed.
Police still carrying out the tactical operation, despite allegedly being aware of potential issues involving Sorrenti and her family, is deeply concerning, Aly said.
“That’s a major problem,” he said. “It was a piece of information that the police had, should have been documented somewhere. It should have been accessible.”
When asked if she had seen the email, McIntyre said she had “seen aspects” but not the entire email. There are some red flags in the email, with Sorrenti’s name misspelled, and her deadname spelled out, which should have been clear indications of something not being right, according to Aly.
“You have to investigate these documents closely, you have to look for those types of things so this exact situation doesn’t transpire,” he said.
McIntyre noted that downgrading the threat isn’t so simple.
“It’s not as easy as picking out some errors in an email,” she said.
But the LPS wasn’t the only force that got the threatening emails, as the Toronto Police Service received an email similar to what landed in London city councillors’ inboxes. In that case, Toronto police called Sorrenti and notified her of the emails, but did not escalate it past that, which Aly says should have happened in London, too.
“In this particular case, it may have not taken much to make a phone call, but to call and see, ‘Is this your email? What’s going on? What type of mental situation are you in?’ And that may have led to the discovery that this was just all false, to begin with,” he said.
Given the information the police had on Sorrenti prior and her public-facing career, Aly thinks the force should have reverted to checking online, even simply doing a Google search, to see if this threat was credible.
The incident is further complicated by the police’s fraught relationships with marginalized communities, including the transgender community, Aly said.
“I think it demonstrates that there is a problem that vulnerable groups are more at risk of malicious individuals who are prepared to manipulate the justice system to their advantage,” Aly said.
Sorrenti case a learning opportunity, police say
There weren’t issues just with the show of force, but for Sorrenti, it was also how police interacted with her while placing her under arrest and afterwards. She claims that a police officer asked her if she was a “she” and to explain what a deadname was.
A deadname is the birth name of a transgender person who has changed their name as part of their gender transition and using one is considered harmful.
Later while under arrest and upon being released, she was given evidence bags with her deadname on them. Both of these incidents to Sorrenti showed the LPS operating in what she called a “transphobic” manner.
When the name Clara Sorrenti popped up in that email and was flagged to London police, it wasn’t the first time they had heard of her. The police had a file on Sorrenti, according to McIntyre.
“It was not as an accused person, but her name was on our file here,” she said.
McIntyre said she had not reviewed Sorrenti’s file before speaking with Global News, but did note that the file was under her birth name. Evidence bags returned to Sorrenti showed her deadname being used instead of her current name. When Sorrenti was booked into the cells and had her belongings confiscated, the name on her file cannot be changed even if it is no longer her real name, according to McIntyre. She argued that changing the name could also lead to evidence being mishandled, but acknowledged that the deadnaming can be viewed as transphobic.
“Is that not best practice? Is it a failure on our part to be able to put that name? 100 per cent,” she said.
The LPS has since made an effort to go through the court system to make a change to Sorrenti’s file. But when asked why a process was not put into place years prior, considering London police deal with other transgender people, McIntyre did not answer, but again noted they are working to change the process.
“I get the optics of that are horrendous and we have acknowledged that publicly and are doing everything we can now to get a new process in place,” she said.
McIntyre said she doesn’t believe that many of her officers who allegedly asked Sorrenti “what a deadname is” knew what it was. She added that they weren’t necessarily wrong with the line of questioning.
“If I am an officer and I’m not understanding, there is a gap for me. If I have a question to ask, ‘What is a dead name?’ Is the question appropriate? Yes,” she said.
Global News asked McIntyre if during the time of her arrest if the best thing was to make Sorrenti provide education to officers about using the correct terminology and pronouns.
“Should she have to wear that responsibility to educate our people? That is not lost on me, that there is a debt,” she said.
The arrest and confiscation of Sorrenti’s equipment resulted in online trolls attacking her with false claims of having child pornography, a common trope used to attack transgender people. McIntyre confirmed nothing like that existed, and she is aware of the damage the arrest likely had given the malicious intent involved.
While McIntyre acknowledged there is a failure, she said that falls on the brass, not on LPS officers. She said the force plans to use this as a learning lesson to move forward and fix its reputation, which has been “tarnished” in the LGBTQ2 community.
“We are going to review this and change this to do better. And I think sometimes failure points us in the right direction,” she said.
The LPS confirmed that it is still investigating to find the original sender of the email and the process will require multi-jurisdictional help.
“We’re with Clara Sorrenti. We’re here to support her, we will investigate,” said McIntyre.
with files from Andrew Graham