How a new Fairfax Co. police unit is working to keep guns out of the hands of people experiencing a crisis

Fairfax County Police Chief Kevin Davis announces a new unit that will investigate bomb threats, among other things.(Courtesy Fairfax County Police Department)

In Virginia, a new Fairfax County police unit will specialize in investigating bomb threats, active violence threats and red flag cases, police Chief Kevin Davis said at a news conference Tuesday.

The group, called the Threat Assessment and Management Unit, which launched on Aug. 28, was formed at a time when Davis said some of those threats are rising.

The unit’s goal, Davis said, is prevention.

“By standing up a team that already are subject matter experts in the field, we think we’ll have more quality investigations,” Davis said. “We won’t run into the scenario of having detectives who are a jack of all trades and master of none.”

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 1, Fairfax County reported 153 active violent-threat events, compared to 73 during the same time frame last year. An active violence threat is what Davis called “modern vernacular for what used to be called active shooter.”

There have been 27 bombs threats in that period this year, compared with 29 last year, according to police data.

And during that time frame, police have coordinated 77 emergency substantial risk orders this year, compared to 47 last year.

Davis said Fairfax County leads the state in the number of emergency substantial risk orders it handles. Also called red flag cases, they involve a court enabling police to temporarily take a gun away from its owner.

“They’re either in mental health or behavioral crisis, or they’re involved in some domestic violence scenarios, and we confiscate their firearms for a period of up to 180 days,” Davis said. “We believe that keeps families safer. We believe it keeps communities safer. And we’re glad and happy to be leading the way.”

In many cases, Davis said, someone has a grievance that turns into violent ideation, and they research and plan for an attack. The unit, according to Lt. Colonel Eli Cory, will “intercede all along the way before it gets to that attack.”

The multidisciplinary team, according to Cory, is something new in the D.C. region. For example, when someone sends a concerning tweet, “we’re going to assemble that team, the investigators are going to continue to investigate like we always have, but they have an additional layer of expertise and training to deal with these types of cases.”

Davis said police are in constant communication with Fairfax County Public Schools, since some threats aimed at schools surface on social media. The unit will work to identify a grievance, and then look for meaning and intent.

If a young person has the intent and means to carry out a threat, “i.e. the possession of a firearm inside the home, typically by a parent, then that’s where we consider our emergency substantial risk order options,” Davis said.

He added that temporarily taking away a firearm in such cases isn’t a Second Amendment issue.

“This is a real world conversation about persons in crisis who have a grievance and have access to firearms,” Davis said. “We don’t want to wait for something tragic to happen, because all too often when something tragic happens, we sit around, and we lament that we knew it was coming.”

More information about the unit is available online.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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