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Commonwealth’s Attorney Candidates at Odds Over Police Reform

(Updated on 05/13/19) The debate in the Commonwealth’s Attorney race over police brutality has grown into a larger discussion over police accountability.

“My opponent’s reckless use of language seeks to sow distrust in a community that registers some of the highest levels of confidence in law enforcement,” said Theo Stamos, the incumbent Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and Falls Church in statement today (Friday.)

Stamos kicked off an election debate this week by requesting Democratic challenger Parisa Dehghani-Tafti explain her recent description of a case as an example of “police brutality” that Stamos declined to prosecute.

“Is your criticism that I failed to prosecute the officer or that I failed to have an another agency review this incident?” Stamos asked her challenger during Wednesday’s debate. “Which was was it?”

The conversation was sparked after several Arlington public safety groups criticized Tafti over a campaign mailer stating Stamos had “refused to prosecute police officers in cases of police brutality.” The mailer cited an instance in which a suspect was shot to death after striking an officer in the face with a metal pipe during a domestic violence call, a shooting that was determined to be justified by an investigation conducted by Stamos’ office.

Tafti said voters want “accountability, transparency, and impartiality” from law enforcement, and questioned Stamos’ investigation of the incident. During Wednesday’s night’s debate, hosted by the Arlington Committee of 100, Tafti responded to Stamos’ question by broadening the discourse.

“This is about impartiality, not about any particular case,” Tafti said. “You don’t want anyone investigating themselves and… the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which is dependent on police to gather evidence, should not be making unchecked decisions about investigations.”

The challenger said that if elected, she would craft an independent review policy to allow a community review board, Virginia State Police, or a special prosecutor to examine cases of police violence — a policy she says other neighboring jurisdictions have.

“It’s remarkable that my opponent is now disavowing her incendiary mailer and suggesting that this is about bringing in an independent agency to review an officer-involved shooting,” Stamos told ARLnow today (Friday) in a statement.

The prosecutor defended the independence of her office, saying she is “not beholden” to law enforcement but that “Shifting responsibility to some other entity that is not accountable to the voters of this community is the opposite of accountability.”

Earlier today Tafti said in a statement that:

I’m for impartiality. Even though rare in our community, use-of-force incidents require impartial review. I’m also a reformer and any time you run as a reformer you get pushback but pushback means we get to talk about the issues. My opponent has fought reform at every turn. Now she has decided to go negative because it distracts from her record of failing to adequately support victims, including survivors of sexual violence — a record of opposing cash bail reform, opposing voting rights for returning citizens, opposing using diversion instead of incarceration for individuals with mental illness, opposing expungement of minor infractions, opposing civil asset forfeiture reform, and opposing transparency and impartiality. I will continue to focus on these issues in the campaign and once elected because that’s what makes everyone safe.

“A key reason you don’t hear about police shootings or excessive use of force in Arlington is because of our crisis prevention training,” Stamos said during the debate. She noted that 78% of county police have received that training.

Also on Wednesday, the Arlington firefighters union, Arlington County Police Department, the Arlington Police Beneficiary Association, and the Arlington Coalition of Police all released statements denouncing Tafti’s labeling of the incident as an example of police brutality gone unpunished.

The Committee of 100 debate also included discussion about what role law enforcement should play in Arlington Public Schools and whether schools needed more law enforcement.

Currently, the county’s schools are staffed with several School Resource Officers (SROs) who are sworn, armed officers empowered to make reports, arrest students, respond to emergencies, as well as lead community events and discussions.

Tafti “takes very seriously” the threat of school shootings but considers stricter gun laws as the solution.

“I’m not aware of a single instance where a School Resource Officer stopped an active shooter, so I do not think they are effective for this purpose,” she said, adding that she is also concerned about SROs charging students for offenses that would be better left for teachers or parents to handle.

Stamos disagreed, telling the audience that SROs only enforce discipline when it becomes necessary and that their main job is to ensure that students and staff are safe. She added that SROs have also been “so meaningful” in many of her office’s cases.

“They provide a safe place for young people to be able to disclose serious things that are going on in their home,” Stamos said. “I can’t tell you the number of times that a young girl has felt comfortable enough to talk to a School Resource Officer in the comfort of her school room and disclose to that officer the abuse that she’s been suffering nightly.”

The question about police presence comes in the aftermath of the recent school shooting in Colorado where two alleged suspects killed one high school student and injured eight others.

Stamos and Tafti have run fierce campaigns since kicking off this winter, with area lawyers split in their support for or against the incumbent — and many defense attorneys siding with Tafti.

The two candidates previously sparred in a debate last month over the county’s handling of first-time marijuana-related offenses, and how prosecutors share case documents with defendants.

Voters will decide between the candidates during the primary election on June 11. As no other political parties have announced candidates for the position, the primary election may decide the de-facto winner of the November general election.

Residents planning to vote must register by Monday, May 20 and can do so online or by mail, or in person at the Office of Elections.

Read Stamos’ full statement to ARLnow about the issue below:

It’s remarkable that my opponent is now disavowing her incendiary mailer and suggesting that this is about bringing in an independent agency to review an officer-involved shooting.  What she actually said in her mailer is that I shielded a police officer from a murder charge because I am unable to be impartial and independent.  My office is an independent agency.  Every day we make decisions about cases that law enforcement may not agree with.   I am not beholden to law enforcement but to the facts and evidence that adhere in every case.  Shifting responsibility to some other entity that is not accountable to the voters of this community is the opposite of accountability.

My opponent’s reckless use of language seeks to sow distrust in a community that registers some of the highest levels of confidence in law enforcement.  Another example of her efforts to sow distrust is when she makes claims about the way victims are treated in this community. My office is second to none in the robust and intensive support, services and assistance we provide to victims of crime every single day.  Ms. Tafti’s words leave this community feeling that allegations of sexual assault will not be taken seriously and that couldn’t be further from the truth.   As the leader of our Sexual Assault Response Team we developed a protocol that guides victims of sexual assault that serves as a model for Virginia.  We take on tough cases and hold offenders accountable.

She alleges that School Resource Officers are part of the problem, ignoring that they are an integral part of what keeps our kids safe and secure.  SROs are our first line against drugs in schools.  SROs provide a safe space for students to report familial abuse.  God forbid we have a school shooting–SROs will already be on the scene.  My opponent said two nights ago, “I am not aware of a single instance of where a School Resource Officer stopped an active shooter.”  Yet there are examples of that happening across the country, including just last year in Maryland when a School Resource Officer in a St. Charles high school was credited with stopping an active shooter.

Arlington County wants a Commonwealth’s Attorney who puts public safety over politics.  Our community does not appreciate nor deserve purposeful distortions and misrepresentations about what is actually happening in Arlington.  I welcome an honest, informed and good faith dialogue about all these important issues.  Our community deserves nothing less.

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