Arlington ended 2022 with more assaults and thefts, according to new data

Crime scene tape at shooting in Arlington (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

Is crime on the rise in Arlington? It depends on which Arlington County official you ask.

Police Chief Andy Penn told the County Board last Thursday that crime rates rose in 2022, driven by upticks in theft — of cars and from cars — and assaults, largely in Arlington’s most populated neighborhoods. He noted that ACPD is seeing more crimes where a weapon is used.

Arlington started 2023 with a rise in carjackings and student overdoses, and this early data indicates that it ended 2022 with a nearly 23% increase in property crimes over 2021 with, specifically, a 27.4% increase in larcenies. In addition, there has been a nearly 32% increase in vehicle thefts and a 14% increase in thefts from vehicles, especially with unlocked cars or those with keys left inside.

There has also been a 16% increase in crimes against people, such as assault, and a 21.5% decrease in crimes against society, such as drug violations.

Penn noted officers are seeing “more guns than what’s normal,” as officers seized 147 firearms in 2022 — an increase from 126 in 2021 and 104 in 2020. Of the seizures in 2022, 15 were ghost guns.

Data on ‘Group A’ offenses, including crimes against people, property and society from 2018-2022 (via Arlington County)

ACPD does not typically report arrest numbers — as opposed to offense numbers, which are released annually — for the most common group of offenses, which span everything from burglary to murder. A department spokeswoman told ARLnow that that would have to be requested through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The department noted its 2021 annual report, released last summer, that people officers have arrested for these “Group A” crimes are “frequently responsible for multiple cases within Arlington or regionally.”

The question of whether crime is rising in Arlington has implications for the race to determine the upcoming Commonwealth’s Attorney race. Josh Katcher, who used to work for the incumbent top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, has made his campaign about acknowledging that crime is rising and criticizing his opponent for, he says, not admitting this.

“We can’t begin to address these issues until we are willing to acknowledge and face them head on,” he said in a statement to ARLnow. “Arlington County deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney who is transparent with those that they are elected to serve. My opponent has repeatedly and publicly stated that crime has not been rising, starting in November of last year.”

Dehghani-Tafti, who won in 2019 on a platform of criminal justice reform, has maintained her position despite crime concerns from some residents and members of ACPD. In a statement to ARLnow in response, Dehghani-Tafti called Katcher’s rhetoric fear-mongering.

“Real leaders don’t engage in right wing fear mongering propaganda, particularly when Arlington remains one of the safest communities in the country,” she said. “Real leaders also don’t use right wing attack lines that prosecutors are responsible for temporary rise or decline in crime. While some categories of assaults have been on the rise since 2018, serious crimes such as homicides have declined in Arlington at the same time as jurisdictions nationwide have seen an increase.”

She noted that Arlington had zero homicides for nearly 18 months — one in February 2022 and none since then.

“Our job is to build on that success to continue to keep our community safe. That’s what I intend to do,” Dehghani-Tafti said.

For her, the real question isn’t “is crime up?” but whether the county is investing in effective crime prevention solutions, including more mental health and substance use treatment resources.

“Anyone lodging baseless attacks from the sidelines isn’t looking for solutions,” said Dehghani-Tafti. “We owe Arlington residents real conversations about how to implement solutions that will actually help — housing and food security, mental health treatment, violence prevention, and residential substance abuse facilities for youth.”

Katcher, meanwhile, claims that Dehghani-Tafti “not only refused to acknowledge a spike in violent crime, but also would not address the unfolding drug crisis in our schools.”

Dehghani-Tafti participated in a substance use forum hosted by the Arlington County Council of PTAs earlier this month. In early February, she shared a statement with followers on social media that she could not comment publicly on ongoing investigations because those comments could interfere with the police department’s investigative work. She did, however, express her grief, as a parent, at the death of a student, who overdosed.

Katcher, for his part, participated in a forum hosted by former School Board candidate Symone Walker about tackling substance use among teens and adolescents in late February.

Possible explanations 

The preliminary stats showing increases in certain crimes come one year after ACPD scaled back some services due to ongoing staffing challenges. The department also launched an updated online crime reporting tool that largely ended in-person police responses to after-the-fact reports of certain minor crimes.

To combat recruitment and retention issues, this year’s proposed county budget includes a 10% increase for the starting salary for officers. The roughly $6,000 increase would take ACPD from ranking 10th among law enforcement agencies in the region to ranking 3rd.

Officers are still responding to in-progress crimes and emergency calls for service with an immediate threat to life, health or property, and they prioritize investigating crimes against people and serious property crimes. Crimes that ACPD determines not to be emergencies are in diverted to online or telephone reporting and investigated as staffing allows.

Penn speculates the changes, including the online reporting, might be contributing to the uptick in reported offenses.

“I don’t have any data about this, but I think we’re having some crimes reported that aren’t traditionally reported,” Penn said. “I don’t have data to support that but I feel that’s part of the conversation.”

There are other theories, too, including that police are “overcharging” suspects.

Arlington’s chief public defender Brad Haywood says his office is seeing more people “overcharged” for crimes, including assault.

“My office is appointed to 65-70% of criminal cases in Arlington and we have not noticed an increase in the frequency or severity of serious felony assaults,” he said on social media.

In a statement to ARLnow, police department spokeswoman Ashley Savage said criminal charges are defined by statute and ACPD seeks appropriate charges under the law based on the facts of each case.

“The Magistrate, an independent judicial officer, conducts initial hearings and reviews facts presented to determine if there is probable cause to issue warrant(s),” she wrote.

In a series of tweets, however, Haywood provided a few recent examples of what he says overcharging looks like.

“Many of the defendants have serious mental illness, and some of the offenses arise in the context of trying to obtain services that are unavailable,” he later told ARLnow. They go to [the hospital], try to wait there, the defendant becomes impatient and more acutely symptomatic, they engage in other conduct that can be charged, and lacking treatment, the police officer feels they have no choice but to go to jail.”

Data from the jail, also shared during the budget work session, confirms that many inmates are experiencing mental health issues.

So far this fiscal year, which began last July and ends in June, the jail has seen 1,582 cases of inmates on mood-altering drugs and 140 inmates sent to or returning from a state mental health hospital.

Incidents in the Arlington County jail in 2022 (via Arlington County)