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FCPD should address ‘swatting’ incidents, panel says

Fairfax County police badge (via FCPD/Facebook)

(updated March 10) After receiving two complaints in the last year, Fairfax County’s Police Civilian Review Panel is recommending that the police department address swatting incidents before one turns tragic.

In its annual report, the panel urged the Fairfax County Police Department to adjust how it handles “swatting incidents” — when police are called on someone as a hoax, putting residents and officers in danger.

It suggested the department could train officers to handle situations that do not match dispatch information, and explore if such calls can be investigated as false reports.

In one of the incidents reported last year, two sisters who lived together in an Annandale townhome said they were awoken at 4 a.m. by officers banging on their door and complained about their conduct and communication, according to the report.

The officers went to the residence after receiving two separate 911 calls from a man who said he was a neighbor and heard a shouting match coming from the home, including pounding on the walls.

Upon arrival, the women did not answer repeated knocks on the door, which they said frightened them because they did not know it was officers and not an intruder, the report said.

The sisters later submitted a complaint to the panel saying the officers were excessively knocking and did not identify themselves.

The panel agreed with the FCPD’s finding clearing the officers of any misconduct, but it discovered from the investigation that there was no follow-up with the 911 caller, whose information was “either outright fabrications or a curious case of mistaken location.”

The FCPD told the panel that it does not follow up calls with unconfirmed or inaccurate information due to privacy concerns and to avoid potentially deterring community members from making 911 calls.

“The Panel understands these concerns, but where the situation is as clear cut as it was here, the Panel believes it would be in the interest of all parties involved to get to the bottom of what happened and why,” the report reads.

It’s not uncommon for officers to encounter a scene that doesn’t match the dispatcher’s description, according to the panel report.

“Under those circumstances, an officer should take steps to clarify,” the report says. “In this instance, the Subject Officers did so by verifying the address and confirming that the Caller did not want to be identified. Nevertheless, the Subject Officers knocked on the door to investigate the Caller’s complaint.”

The panel believes the second reported swatting incident was more clearly deliberate and dangerous for all involved.

A full SWAT team was dispatched to someone’s home after a 911 caller reported shots being fired, according to the panel. Despite the false information, under the circumstances, police followed procedure and diffused the situation quickly, the report stated.

“Still, the Panel was concerned that such a situation could have had a very different and very tragic outcome,” the report says.

Given the seriousness of the dispatch information, the FCPD does investigate incidents like that because they are akin to filing a false police report, it told the panel. But the panel still wondered if more steps could have been taken to prevent the potential for a dangerous situation.

“We had both seen what was either a mistaken address or possibly malicious with one incident,” said Jimmy Bierman in his last meeting as the panel’s chairman on Feb. 28. “We’d also saw a full scale swatting incident. We’d seen variations of degree on 911 calls leading to situations that were dangerous for both individuals involved and the police.”

A spokeswoman for FCPD said there were 11 such incidents in 2020 and 30 in 2021.

The panel typically presents its annual report to the Board of Supervisors’ public safety committee a few months after it votes to pass it, Bierman said.

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