(Updated 11:40 a.m.) Last October, 46-year-old D.C. resident Darryl Becton died in his cell at the Arlington County Detention Facility in Courthouse.
The county is still looking into the circumstances around his death, but the Arlington County Police Department tells ARLnow the investigation could soon be concluded.
“Detectives are reviewing last items and anticipate concluding the investigation in the near future,” ACPD spokeswoman Ashley Savage said. “While we appreciate the need for closure and transparency, ACPD has a duty to conduct a professional, methodical, and thorough investigation to ensure all relevant facts are gathered, documented, and considered.”
ACPD will then forward the entire investigative file to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office for independent review. Meantime, the Sheriff’s Office will investigate whether applicable policies and procedures were being followed in this incident.
Meanwhile, the Arlington branch of the NAACP — which called for an independent investigation of the death of Becton, an African American man — is wondering why the investigation is taking so long.
“The Arlington NAACP’s most crucial question is who is not cooperating with whom because nothing else makes sense,” branch president Julius “J.D.” Spain, Sr. said. “It’s been ten plus months, and all the family and community get is the hot potato treatment.”
By that, he says, when the NAACP talks to County Board members, they point to the Commonwealth’s Attorney, who says to talk with the Arlington County Police Department, who says talk to the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office.
“With the exception of one letter dated October 26, 2020, the Sheriff has been silent,” he said. “Her silence is the only part of this that makes any sense because Mr. Becton somehow died in a locked cell in the jail she runs. Their collective treatment of the family is highly disrespectful and compounds their grief and the concerns of citizens.”
What we know of the case
Last fall, Becton was being held on an alleged probation violation after being convicted in 2019 of a felony, “unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.”
On Oct. 1, 2020, at 4:15 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy and a Department of Human Services caseworker had found Becton unresponsive in his cell. ACPD officers were dispatched at 4:19 p.m. to investigate. Despite resuscitation efforts, Becton was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.
Within a week, the NAACP wrote to the sheriff’s office and the police department requesting an independent investigation. The same month, Sheriff Beth Arthur and then-Acting Chief of Police Andy Penn wrote a joint response.
“The death of Mr. Becton is tragic and we can assure you that a thorough and comprehensive criminal investigation into this matter will be conducted by the ACPD, followed by a comprehensive administrative investigation by ASCO to determine if all applicable policies and procedures were followed surrounding Mr. Becton’s incarceration,” Arthur and Penn wrote.
Amid the investigation, the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner conducted an autopsy, which was completed after a death certificate was issued to Becton’s family. On that document, the autopsy was listed as “pending” and no cause of death was listed.
“Mr. Becton’s loved ones deserve to know what the medical examiner determined was his cause of death, and they still can’t even get that simple answer,” Spain said.
The medical examiner’s office told ARLnow on Wednesday that the cause was hypertensive cardiovascular disease — which is caused by sustained high blood pressure — complicated by opiate withdrawal. The manner of his death was ruled to be natural.
Ten months of waiting
Meanwhile, frustrated with the investigation’s pace, the NAACP reached out to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti last week to see if she had made any progress on her independent review. In response, she affirmed that her office owe’s Becton’s family and the community “an accurate and transparent account of our work,” but pointed to the process laid out by ACPD and ACSO.
“It is important to note that the October 26, 2020, joint letter… stated that a complete investigative file would be turned over to my Office for independent review; those investigations are not yet complete,” she said.
She tells ARLnow that she cannot comment on why things are taking so long because the investigation is still ongoing.
“Our office is exercising diligence and doing the work that we can at the fastest pace we can,” she said.
Spain is pushing for more information, especially because Becton is the fifth person — and the fourth Black man — to die in the facility while in custody in five years, according to the joint letter from ASCO and ACPD.
Anthony Gordon and Edward Straughn died in 2015 and Bennie Turner died in 2017. Two were ruled as natural causes, and one was ruled to be due to a mixture of controlled substances found in the man’s system. The death of the remaining inmate, Jitesh Patel in 2019, was ruled a suicide.
In the same years Gordon, Straughn and Turner died, 43-44 people died in local Virginia jails, according to an April report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In 2018, the most recent year in the report, illness was the leading cause of death, at 46% of reported deaths nationwide. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death, at 30%. While there were comparatively fewer drug or alcohol intoxication deaths, 178, that’s four times the number reported in 2000.
The local NAACP is calling for accountability for the deaths of Becton, Gordon, Straughn, Turner and Patel. The organization issued the following statement yesterday (Wednesday) evening. The medical report and the statement from ACPD about when the investigation will be completed are both new pieces of information, and ACPD’s update came Thursday morning, after this statement was released.
The Arlington NAACP’s most crucial question is who is not cooperating with whom because nothing else makes sense. It’s been ten plus months, and all the family and community get is the hot potato treatment. When we speak to members of the County Board, they say talk to the Commonwealth Attorney. The Commonwealth Attorney says the police aren’t finished. The Arlington County Police say speak to the Sheriff. With the exception of one letter dated October 26, 2020, the Sheriff has been silent. Her silence is the only part of this that makes any sense because Mr. Becton somehow died in a locked cell in the jail she runs. Their collective treatment of the family is highly disrespectful and compounds their grief and the concerns of citizens. Mr. Becton’s loved ones deserve to know what the medical examiner determined was his cause of death, and they still can’t even get that simple answer.
Who will be held accountable for the deaths of five minorities in law enforcement custody in the past five years? What changes will be made so it doesn’t happen again, and again? There was no reason another Black man should have died while in custody. What is going on here?
This ten plus month ordeal is precisely the unexplained and perhaps unexplainable delay that occasioned the NAACP’s concern with the County Board relegating a community police oversight board to a review-only function. Our concern that there is no mechanism to ensure timely police investigations prompted the adoption of our written recommendation for a 60-day time limit on the concurrent ACPD/[Independent Policing Auditor] investigation. And that was a struggle. Yet so far, the ACPD/Sheriff’s Office investigation has run five times that long, with no end in sight or so much as an inkling of the circumstances of Mr. Becton’s death. We Are Done Dying! Arlington deserves so much more than the disrespect being shown to the Becton family and our communities of color by these inexplicable delays by our own elected officials.
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