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Latest county jail death prompts questions, pledge of oversight from County Board

County Board member Matt de Ferranti on Saturday, Feb. 12 (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Board member Matt de Ferranti says he has lots of questions for the county’s criminal justice system after an inmate died in the county jail two weeks ago.

On Saturday, he released a statement committing to figuring out why Paul Thompson, a homeless man arrested for trespassing at a place from which he was previous banned, died in the Arlington County Detention Center earlier this month. He also committed to avoiding preventable deaths at the jail.

“Typically, a number of state agencies — the Magistrate, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, and the Public Defender’s office and our Judges — along with the Arlington County Police Department and the Department of Human Services all have a role in cases like Mr. Thompson’s,” he said. “In my oversight role as a Board Member, I share in the responsibility to make sure we are doing everything we can.”

On Feb. 1, Thompson became the seventh man in seven years to die in the custody of the Sheriff’s Office. Six of the seven have been Black.

The Arlington branch of the NAACP has been sounding the alarm on in-custody deaths in part because of their disproportionate impact on men of color since the 2020 death of Darryl Becton.

“We are failing men of color [and] we are failing people who are homeless in this community,” said Juliet Hiznay, an education and disability rights attorney and a member of the NAACP, during the County Board meeting on Saturday.

Last fall, the ongoing investigation into Becton’s death led to charges filed against a man police say falsified a patient record. It also prompted the Sheriff’s Office to change its jail-based medical provider, which was finalized within 24 hours of Thompson’s death.

And now, the death of Thompson — who did not have a criminal history but did suffer from a mental illness, Sheriff Beth Arthur told WTOP — is prompting greater scrutiny from the Arlington County Board.

“There will be follow-up in the coming weeks through the County Manager, and I personally will be following up in the short term,” de Ferranti tells ARLnow. “We do have to focus on solutions, and that’s why, I’ll be engaging with staff and subject-matter experts on this.”

Thompson’s death is being investigated by Arlington police and an autopsy is still pending, the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said today (Monday).

De Ferranti said he looks forward to answers to the following questions.

  • Does the Magistrate’s Office, which handles intake at the jail, have the mental health staff and other resources it needs to support diversion of persons like Mr. Thompson?
  • What are the health care protocols, policies and practices at the jail? Is there more that could be done to protect the well-being of those in the Sheriff’s care?
  • Does the County have sufficient substance abuse facilities to support diversion or provide other appropriate alternatives to incarceration? What about mental health support and facilities? Do we have sufficient homeless services at our various facilities to help prevent in custody deaths?
  • What are the laws applicable to criminal trespassing on private property? Are they different from public property?
  • What discretion does the Commonwealth’s Attorney have to release individuals without knowing their identity? Are changes needed? If so, are they changes in law or practice?
  • What is the role of the Public Defender have a role in helping seek the release of those in our jail more expeditiously? Are changes needed there? If so, are they changes in law or practice?

Those questions have been the focus of the criminal justice system for the last 15 years, Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood tells ARLnow.

“We know what the answers are,” he said. “It might be uncomfortable for the county because it requires a paradigm shift with police and requires greater investments in both medical services in the jail and mental health services outside the jail.”

That shift involves how Arlington incarcerates people for misdemeanors, he said.

As for Thompson, Haywood said his team “did everything we could to get him out. We had a bond motion the next day. We advanced the case as early as possible.”

Hence the question about trespassing laws, says de Ferranti, who is also one of two County Board liaisons to the new police oversight board. While there’s no formal overlap between the Community Oversight Board, which will handle police misconduct complaints, and the Sheriff’s Office, trespassing laws are a link between Thompson’s death to police practices, he said.

Haywood says Arlington’s support for people with mental illnesses breaks down because of shortages in beds and staffing at Virginia Hospital Center and the Arlington Behavioral Center — exacerbated by closures of state psychiatric hospitals — as well as cracks in the jail’s medical care. He says the jail needs a full-time psychiatrist so inmates have medication, not just therapeutic services.

As for the behavioral health center, run by the Department of Human Services, DHS spokesman Kurt Larrick says the center has “never had to scale back what we’re offering or turn people away,” but keeping up staffing is tough.

“Our Crisis Intervention Center has to be open 24/7/365,” he tells ARLnow. “As you can imagine, keeping staff comes with challenges.”

While Sequoia may have the resources, he said the current process for someone who’s been arrested to receive care at the facility strains Arlington police officers, who must remain with their charges during their stay. Larrick said DHS is working to get specialized personnel, called Special Conservators of the Peace, who can legally take over supervision of people in police custody.

“We’re drafting a scope of work for a contract agency and vendor, and we’re hoping this will come together really quickly,” he said. “I don’t think there’s another one in the state or country that does this, so we’ll be on the leading edge of this new system to get people the treatment they need, quickly, and to get law enforcement back on the street quickly.”

The county is also working to secure more beds at Virginia Hospital Center for those who in mental health crisis, de Ferranti said.

“We’re facing a more acute mental health challenge than even in the past couple of years. There’s a competition for the staff who can do this work and we need to make sure we’re trying to address the human services needs that are there,” he said.

Ultimately, Larrick says, lasting change must prioritize prevention.

“We have resources, we have beds, whether it’s for behavioral health issues or homelessness, we have help,” Larrick said. “[But] people aren’t willing to accept help until they’re ready. We’re working to eliminate the stigma and make it easier for people to accept help.”

Board Chair Katie Cristol reiterated that delicate balance on Saturday in her response to Hiznay’s comments.

“The challenge of diversion is that, as they should, people in some sort of behavioral health crisis have rights, and cannot be compelled to go into alternative services,” Cristol said. “That has informed our strategy to replace police… with mental health providers as a first response.”

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