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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. Read More

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Police leave the Fairfax County Courthouse (file photo by David Taube)

Fairfax County’s Police Civilian Review Panel has implemented a screening process to better assess whether complaints have merit.

The panel, which reviews complaints of misconduct by the Fairfax County Police Department, uses the process to determine if a request should be reviewed by the entire panel, thereby expediting its other cases.

“I don’t mean to disparage anyone who brings complaints, but sometimes they are simply unfounded, and it is not necessary for the entire panel to devote our resources to viewing a complaint,” panel member Jimmy Bierman said during the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors’ May 17 public safety committee meeting.

The panel formally introduced the reform in September, creating a subcommittee of three members to determine whether allegations rise to the level of serious misconduct or abuse of authority, according to an annual report published Feb. 28.

A four-year review from the panel released in 2021 recommended that a “summary judgment”-like process be codified in its bylaws by the Board of Supervisors. The panel has been using subcommittees since 2019 to help handle growing number of complaints, the annual report said.

The process led to the dismissal of a complaint related to an alleged shoplifting at a since-closed Office Depot in Merrifield. The incident happened in May 2020 at 2901 Gallows Road, according to the panel.

According to Bierman, a female shoplifter hid in the Office Depot, tried to shoplift after it closed and later called 911 for help to get out when she couldn’t leave through the front door.

The subcommittee spared the panel from reviewing the complaint against police, who asked her to show a receipt, Bierman said.

However, the decision to dismiss the complaint wasn’t unanimous, as former panel member Hansel Aguilar argued that the full panel should have reviewed it. Aguilar is now the first executive director for Charlottesville’s police civilian oversight board.

The added subcommittee is just one of the changes that Fairfax County’s civilian review panel has made in recent months, including the addition of an executive director in February.

Overall, the panel received 28 complaints against the FCPD in 2021, including 14 initial complaints and 14 requests for a review of an investigation. Two initial complaints and 11 review requests were rejected, and reviews were ongoing for eight cases, as of Dec. 31.

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