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FCPD tells officers to watch out for ‘swatting,’ as Virginia considers bill making it a crime

Fairfax County police cruiser with lights on (via FCPD/Facebook)

The Fairfax County Police Department has revised how its officers respond to “swatting” after seeing a noticeable uptick in such incidents in recent years.

“Swatting” is a form of harassment involving false 911 calls that are intended to draw a heavy law enforcement response, such as a SWAT team, putting the target in a potentially life-threatening situation.

As of Dec. 6, the FCPD had recorded 12 swatting incidents this year, a decline from the 30 seen in 2021 but still significantly higher than the three reported in 2018 and five in 2019, according to data provided to FFXnow. Incidents have climbed into the double digits since 2020, when there were 11.

“As you can tell they have risen over the years,” said Sgt. Lance Hamilton with the police department’s public affairs bureau. “As a result, we have updated our General Orders regarding the response to ‘Swatting’ events in August of this year.”

Effective Aug. 11, the department’s hostage and barricade procedures now includes a specific subsection on potential swatting incidents:

Officers should factor in, prior to attempting to make contact with any individual at a location where a report of a hostage or barricade incident has been communicated through the Department of Public Safety Communications (DPSC), whether or not the incident constitutes a false “swatting” incident. Officers should consider whether the scene matches the 9-1-1 call description and follow-up with criminal investigations of making a false report to police whenever possible.

Officers should consider “if they have legal authority, what are the potential dangers posed to the community/officers, and is there a need for additional specialized resources from our Operations Support Bureau,” Hamilton said.

“In most cases, this is handled by the department’s de-escalation techniques of using time and distance to slow things down,” Hamilton said. “As you can imagine this is a difficult balance when someone calls 911 regarding an active event.”

The policy change came after community members filed complaints about two separate incidents with the county’s Police Civilian Review Panel, which reviews FCPD investigations into abuse of authority and misconduct allegations.

In one case, police were called to an Annandale townhome at 4 a.m. on March 8, 2020 after a man who claimed to be a neighbor called 911 twice, saying the women who lived there were yelling and fighting. The women said the responsing officers knocked excessively and didn’t identify themselves, leading them to not answer the door right away.

In the other, the FCPD sent a full SWAT team to a home after a 911 caller reported shots being fired “during a likely domestic disturbance,” according to the panel’s 2021 annual report.

While the panel found no misconduct in either case, it expressed surprise at the lack of a follow-up investigation into the 911 caller in the first case and suggested that the FCPD reconsider its policies.

“While the Panel is aware that certain rules concerning 9-1-1 procedures are set at the Commonwealth-wide level, it is our hope that the FCPD and the county can work together to make sure that procedures and laws are in place such that the frequency of such dangerous incidents is greatly minimized,” the annual report said.

The haziness around when an unfounded call reaches the level of a criminal false report, necessitating a follow-up investigation, may get cleared up by a bill that’s expected to be introduced in the Virginia General Assembly’s upcoming 2023 session.

According to FFXnow’s sister site, ARLnow, Del. Angelia Williams Graves (D-Norfolk) will carry a bill that defines swatting and designates it as a specific crime.

Though the FBI has warned against swatting since at least 2008, Virginia only addresses it right now under a law against filing false police reports. California became the first state to implement an anti-swatting law in 2014.

Graves’s legislation was spurred by Arlington County officials who identified combatting swatting as a legislative priority after multiple hoax calls alleging an active shooter prompted school lockdowns.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors didn’t include any similar requests in its 2023 legislative package, but Chairman Jeff McKay says he’s been monitoring policy changes related to swatting made by the police department and recommended by the civilian review panel.

“Swatting is a serious offense and should be treated as such,” McKay said in a statement. “I will ask our legislative staff to review any bills that come up that address this through state law. I appreciate the efforts by the [panel] and FCPD to ensure that police practices continue to protect public safety at all times.”

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