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How Fairfax police handled a 34-hour barricade on a busy highway

A woman police say was armed with a handgun locked herself in a Jeep SUV on the side of Richmond Highway on March 28 in Fairfax, Va. (Video: Fairfax County Police)
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When a 29-year-old woman, who authorities say was armed with a handgun, locked herself in a Jeep SUV on the side of Richmond Highway on Tuesday, Fairfax County police officers opted to wait her out.

Police blocked off about a mile stretch of the six-lane roadway in both directions and urged her to come out of her vehicle over a loudspeaker, according to the department. At one point, an officer brought her a pack of cigarettes in an attempt to earn her trust, police said. Authorities said they also gave her doughnuts in exchange for a magazine of bullets.

It was not until more than 34 hours later, as Wednesday night gave way to Thursday morning, that she finally stepped outside.

Fairfax County police arrested Brittany A. Copelin, of Charles County, Md., and she was soon charged in two jurisdictions.

“There’s no shot clock here,” Fairfax Police Chief Kevin Davis said at a Thursday news conference. “We can take our time and do the right thing.”

In Fairfax, Copelin is charged with two counts of abduction by force, two counts of felony firearm use and felony firearm possession. Police in Laurel, Md., also charged Copelin with two counts of kidnapping, home invasion, first-degree assault, third-degree burglary, false imprisonment and other misdemeanor charges. The public defender’s office in Fairfax did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Fairfax County police said a doorbell camera video caught Copelin and a 25-year-old woman leaving an apartment in Laurel, Md., on Friday. That woman’s mother called the Laurel Police Department on Sunday and said her daughter was missing.

At about 11 a.m. Tuesday, law enforcement from the Charles County Sheriff’s Office separately asked Fairfax County police officers to check on Copelin, who was spotted near Fordson Road in Hybla Valley, Fairfax County police said.

Officers made their way to the area, and were approached at about 11:40 a.m. by the 25-year-old woman whose mother had reported her missing. She told them she had been abducted by Copelin, police said.

Officers searched the area for Copelin and found her in a 2016 Jeep SUV in a parking lot in the 7300 block of Richmond Highway. Police said they tried to stop the Jeep, but Copelin drove away. Officers chased her, and she stopped on the service road at Richmond Highway and Arlington Drive , officials said.

Police said the vehicle pursuit was slow, and lasted about two minutes.

After she stopped, police said, Copelin displayed a firearm to officers and refused to exit the Jeep SUV. The department’s SWAT team and crisis negotiators, including mental health clinicians, responded to the scene. Police blocked off the roadway to traffic.

“You have to think worst case scenario if shots are fired,” Davis said.

Officials said Copelin placed the gun to her head several times throughout the incident. Negotiators communicated with her through a loudspeaker, over the phone and by yelling, as they attempted to coax her out, Davis said. Police called Copelin’s family, who authorities said showed up to the scene within 15 minutes. Officials said family members sent her phone messages telling her they loved her and encouraging her to walk toward police.

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Copelin, who had her cellphone, was in contact with members of the media and at one point participated in an interview with D.C. News Now, in which she said she had been afraid to get out of the car, authorities said. She told a reporter she did not commit a crime she had been accused of before the standoff, according to D.C. News Now.

“I think we want to be careful going forward that a person in a mental health crisis does not contact someone who could exacerbate the situation,” Davis said. “That didn’t happen. But that’s certainly going through my mind.”

Todd Pilot, an attorney for the woman who told police she had been abducted by Copelin, said in a statement that his client “is very grateful to everyone who spread the word about her abduction and happy to have survived the ordeal. She and her family are hoping that the authorities will use the full extent of the law to bring her abductor and anyone else who aided or assisted, to justice.”

At about midnight Wednesday, Copelin left the SUV with the firearm inside the vehicle, authorities said. She was taken to a hospital and then booked in the Fairfax County jail on Thursday.

The lengthy barricade frustrated some. Tanya Pensamiento, 31, who takes Richmond Highway to get to work, said the traffic was terrible, and questioned police’s decision to bring such a militarized response as they shut down a long stretch of roadway.

“Her situation was a mental breakdown,” Pensamiento said. “Obviously, seeing cops and guns all over and surrounding you wouldn’t make it feel any better. Maybe that’s why it took her so long.”

Fairfax Lt. Jim Curry said throughout the standoff, blocks of officers were rotating in eight-hour shifts as they continued to negotiate with Copelin. Before Copelin left her car, he said police were not looking to forcibly remove her from the vehicle.

“We want police to be mentally sharp, physically sharp so we can listen to and let her talk,” he said Wednesday night. “Everybody wants to be on their A-game.”

Davis said he had listened to a lot of “interesting voice messages” from businesses in the community about the disruption. He said he had understood residents’ frustration, but it was a slow approach that kept everyone safe.

“A lot of people have had questions and comments about why it took so long,” he said. “The reason why it took so long is because we wanted to get to the best possible outcome for a person involved in a mental health crisis. That’s what this was.”


An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Brittany A. Copelin stopped on a service road at Richmond Highway and Arlington Boulevard. She stopped on a service road at Richmond Highway and Arlington Drive. This version has been corrected.