Police chief lauds effort to resolve 34-hour barricade on Richmond Highway

Fairfax County police barricaded part of Richmond Highway to negotiate with an armed woman experiencing a mental health crisis (via FCPD/Twitter)

An armed woman who police say was experiencing a mental health crisis is now being held without bond at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.

The woman, who has been identified as 29-year-old Maryland resident Brittney Copelin, was taken into custody shortly after midnight today (Thursday), ending a shutdown of Richmond Highway in the Hybla Valley area that lasted about 34 hours.

While acknowledging that some business owners and community members grew frustrated by the duration of the barricade, Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis described the handling of the situation as a positive reflection of how police practices have changed over the past decade.

“The reason it took so long was we wanted to get to the best possible outcome for a person involved in a mental health crisis, because that’s what this was,” Davis said at a press conference this afternoon.”There were certainly crimes committed, and we can get into that, but this was ultimately a person in a mental health crisis.”

The Fairfax County Police Department has charged Copelin with two counts of abduction, two counts of use of a firearm in the commission of a felony, and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

She also faces multiple criminal charges in the City of Laurel, Maryland, where she lives in an apartment with a woman whom she has now been accused of abducting.

According to Davis, the saga began on Friday (March 24) when Copelin and the other woman, who hasn’t been publicly identified, left their apartment. The other woman’s mother filed a missing persons report with the Laurel Police Department on Sunday (March 26).

Around 11 a.m. on Tuesday (March 28), the Charles County Sheriff’s Office asked the FCPD to conduct a welfare check on a critical missing person in the 7200 block of Fordson Road, where officers encountered the woman who said she had been abducted.

The officers found Copelin in a 2016 Jeep SUV parked in the 7300 block of Richmond Highway, but when they approached the vehicle, she took off, leading to “a very brief, low-speed pursuit,” Davis said.

Coming to a stop on a service road for Richmond Highway and Lockheed Blvd, Copelin then took out a handgun and put it to her head, according to police.

Davis said the officers reacted appropriately by backing off once they saw the gun and calling in the department’s SWAT team. A roughly 1-mile stretch of Richmond Highway was closed between Lockheed Blvd and Boswell Avenue, as special operations officers, crisis negotiators and mental health clinicians arrived on the scene.

The clinicians included personnel from the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board’s Merrifield Crisis Response Center as well as specialists assigned full-time to the FCPD as members of its co-responder teams.

“[Clinicians are] going to see things, and with their training and experience, they’re going to look at things through a different lens than police officers, so they were instrumental,” Major Dalton Becker, the FCPD’s operations support bureau commander, said. “We can’t thank them enough, and they help us through many cases such as this.”

According to police, Copelin pointed the gun to her head multiple times throughout the standoff, but with the assistance of family members who helped communicate with her, police were able to “establish trust and rapport with her,” Davis said.

At one point, she removed the magazine from the gun and tossed it out the vehicle window in exchange for doughnuts.

As the barricade dragged on, police from Alexandria City, Virginia State Police and even George Mason University got involved.

The FCPD announced at 12:08 a.m. that Copelin had been “safely taken into custody.” The firearm was recovered, according to Davis.

Noting that waiting for backup is no longer seen in police departments as “a weakness,” as it was earlier in his career, Davis said that, because Copelin wasn’t posing an immediate threat to other people, officers had time to “get experts on the scene and…handle this in a way that ultimately results in a safe resolution.”

“Imagine if that were your sister or mother or daughter. I think if you put yourselves in the shoes of that family, you would exhibit more patience,” Davis said.

Photo via FCPD/Twitter