Fake 911 calls, predatory towing on county list of legislative priorities

The Arlington County Board on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022 (via Arlington County)

(Updated at 8:50 a.m. on 11/17/22) Arlington County is looking to the state legislature to help with some key priorities, including combating malicious 911 calls and predatory towing.

These are two of many issues that the county intends to have local legislators lobby for in the upcoming 2023 Virginia General Assembly session, which runs for 45 days beginning on Jan. 11, 2023.

The county’s legislative priorities address public safety, energy, transportation, criminal justice reform, affordable housing and mental health, among other things. The list of priorities was drafted with input from local commissions, advisory groups, county staff, the County Board and community members.

On Saturday, Ilana Creinin, the legislative liaison for Arlington County, told the County Board that “swatting,” or fake calls to emergency services with the intent to draw out a police response, are on the rise, and the county would support legislation that would combat it. Recent examples include a false active shooter call at Washington-Liberty High School in September and a false report of a shooting inside a home in October.

“We want to make sure we’re able to combat the act of making a hoax communication to 911,” Creinin said. “We’ve seen in some of our schools there’s been an uptick in instances of people calling in false communications.”

A county report outlining the priorities did not say what kind of legislation it would support.

Meanwhile, Arlington County is looking to support legislation that provides parity for Northern Virginia, compared with the rest of the state, when pursuing litigation against towing companies through the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.

County Board member Takis Karantonis said he is “very happy” to “see push for consumer protection against predatory towing in our region.”

Del. Alfonso Lopez supported a bill last year, which failed, that would have given residents and localities more ability to protect themselves against bad-actor towing companies. The bill responded to public scrutiny of Ballston-based Advanced Towing, which is frequently accused of unsafe and predatory towing practices, though such accusations fizzled in court after the previous state Attorney General sued the company.

One legislative priority carried over from last year would address the state mental health crisis caused by a workforce shortage and a lack of beds in state-run mental hospitals.

With fewer staff to run them, the Commonwealth closed more than half of these hospitals to new admissions, overwhelming local hospitals and the Arlington County Police Department and driving fatigued county clinicians and Arlington police officers to quit.

“As you know, we’re still going through a large mental health crisis in our state with both staffing shortages and also a lack of state hospital beds,” said Creinin. “We want to work toward solving this crisis.”

Others respond to actions taken or proposed by the Republican-controlled state house or the administration of Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R-Va.).

Arlington County proposes to “protect existing legislation that codifies rights and protections for LGBTQ+ Virginians and support any proposed expansions to those rights.” It says it will work to “maintain unrestricted access to the full range of reproductive health services for all persons.”

This fall, the state released new model policies, which, if local school boards adopted them, would require many transgender students in public schools to use bathrooms that align with their sex at birth while protecting teachers who do not use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns. APS students and staff denounced this policy in a walkout and during recent School Board meetings.

This summer, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, removing federal protections for abortion and sending the issue back to the states to decide. Youngkin indicated interest in a 15-week abortion ban, which would reduce the current window in which the state law currently allows abortion — through the second trimester, which is around 26 weeks.

For County Board members, all Democrats, this session will require both “offensive” and “defensive” strategies to get legislation passed under Youngkin and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

“I think [the package] represents a balance of what we can reasonably expect to be our ‘offensive’ agenda, if you will, but I will note that we will spend a lot of the session playing defense to ensure we don’t have rollbacks on gains made in recent years,” said Board Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey.

County Board Member Libby Garvey lauded one guiding principle for the legislative priorities: to fully fund state mandates to local governments. But, she said, the county needs to be clearer in its wording.

“Sometimes, I think we’re so polite in how we phrase things that the point doesn’t get across,” she said. “The state commits to do a lot of things, has a lot of debts and isn’t paying them.”

One example is getting the state to pay for raises for public school teachers without requiring the county to match that raise, says Board Chair Katie Cristol.

“Someone seeing it in the abstract might think we don’t want to give teachers raises,” Cristol said. “The reality is our colleagues at APS, with our support, have given teachers significant raises… We have already well exceeded, multiple times over, any potential local match.”

Other notable legislative priorities include the following.

  • Land use and housing: give tenants the right to improve their living standards and conditions.
  • Finance: oppose the exemption of groceries and hygiene products from the local option sales tax.
  • Transportation: expand speed cameras beyond schools and work zones.
  • Criminal justice reform: ensure new marijuana legislation, if it passes, is consistent with revenue, land use, public health and safety priorities.
  • Education: bolster youth mental health resources in schools.
  • General government: expand authority for local boards and commissions to meet virtually.
  • Public safety: support more staffing for jails, police, fire and emergency services as well as jail diversion efforts.
  • Environment: protect Virginia Clean Economy act and regional greenhouse gas emissions policies, and preserve and expand tree canopy.

The Board will have a work session with the General Assembly delegation on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Public comments on the legislative priorities will be accepted until the Board’s Dec. 17 meeting.