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Police, prosecutor aim to repair relationship after Tuesday’s primary

(Updated at 5:30 p.m.) Arlington’s top prosecutor, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, bested challenger Josh Katcher in yesterday’s Democratic primary.

Now, she says it is time to get back to work, building on reforms she made the first time around and forging a better relationship with the Arlington County police rank and file.

Dehghani-Tafti was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington and Falls Church in 2019 on a criminal justice reform platform, besting her predecessor, Theo Stamos, in an expensive and contentious primary.

This time, she beat Katcher in a campaign that focused on her track record — and sometimes stooped to criticize Katcher for his prosecutorial judgement and question the motives of his supporters and donors.

Of her race in Arlington, Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow last night (Tuesday) that “the 2019 campaign was about ideals and promises and laying out a new vision. This is about showing our work.”

With the primary behind her, Dehghani-Tafti shared with ARLnow what is next for her office. One top priority is expanding the Restorative Arlington initiative so more victims can choose guided, out-of-court conferencing sessions with the people who harmed them — if they want it.

She would also like to schedule another clinic where people can learn about how to get their records expunged, which she aims to make a biannual event. Additionally, Dehghani-Tafti is working on standing up a gun buyback program with Moms Demand Action and has met with the organization since last fall to find a “safe and effective” way to pull it off.

Lastly, though this falls outside her purview, she plans to meet with court services to find ways to get more residents connected to substance use treatment programs.

ARLnow asked about her relationship with the Arlington County Police Department going forward. The police union endorsed Katcher as it endorsed Stamos in 2019.

“I will continue to be a bridge-builder as much as possible,” she said.

Police union president Randall Mason said the organization is disappointed in the outcome but hopes the relationship between the departments will grow.

“Maybe she didn’t know there was a poor relationship between officers and her office, and our endorsement was eye-opening for her,” he said. “Hopefully it becomes better over the next four years and we work collaboratively towards prosecutions.”

He says officers want to see the prosecutor’s office devote more time to pre-trial preparation. Mason has been asked to be a witness twice and both times, he says, he was not given opportunities to meet with prosecutors in advance though he requested it. Officers also want to get feedback when charges are dropped “so we can do our job better in the future.”

Judith Davis, an Arlington Public Schools parent, said she attended every forum and asked the two candidates about student health, safety and substance use. She supported Dehghani-Tafti because she acknowledged “there was work to do.”

Still, she was frustrated that this election “brought out the ugly in people.”

“It’s easy to point fingers,” she said. “We didn’t hear from the people who had things to say.”

Yordanos Woldai, a Green Valley resident concerned about safety in her community, said she supported Katcher for his judgment and trial attorney experience.

“I am proud of the campaign Josh ran,” she said. “He focused on issues that matter — even while enduring one baseless attack after another.”

Katcher critiqued his opponent for downplaying statistics indicating a rise in crime, as well as her office for mishandling cases and thus, compounding the hurt victims feel.

Both used anecdotes from people who went through the court system to paint each other as lacking competency or nuanced judgment.

Katcher said in a statement last night that the community had an important debate over the future of criminal justice reform.

“Our team left it all on the field, as we sought to have a debate about what real reform and real justice could mean for our community,” he said.

One oft-debated point was funding — and what kind of role it played in who won.

“What we saw here, once again, was big, outside, unopposed money influenced this race,” says Sean Kennedy, who leads Virginians for Safe Communities, an organization that opposes the criminal justice reforms of Dehghani-Tafti, as well as prosecutors Steve Descano and Buta Biberaj, in Fairfax County and Loudoun County, respectively.

He pointed to the significant spending this election from third-party political action committees, largely funded by billionaire George Soros, who also supported Dehghani-Tafti in 2019. So far she has received less money from such groups than in 2019 but, he pointed out, not all campaign financing reports are available yet.

The public safety-focused voters could not overcome that funding, he said. The moderate challengers to Biberaj and Descano also failed their bids.

“The voters of Arlington decided something that I don’t agree with but the voters spoke. They’ll have to reap what they sow,” Kennedy said. “I’m disappointed but not shocked. I wish the Arlington County Police Department and other law enforcement luck dealing with her office.”

Political consultant Ben Tribbett points out Katcher was not lacking in moneyed donors. He says he won enclaves with many wealthy, white voters while Dehghani-Tafti won areas “where there is diversity, where there are people who are having to interact with the police on a more frequent basis.”

“There’s a lot of people in North Arlington who need to get back in touch with the rest of their community” and stop pushing candidates “who are totally out of touch with the rest of the county,” he said.

Arlington County’s Chief Public Defender Brad Haywood opined this same point last night, saying most voters are deciding who will run a courthouse they will rarely step foot in and, as a result, “have no idea what’s going on in the courthouse.”

From reform advocates around the U.S., he says he has heard general agreement that Dehghani-Tafti is carrying out her reform promises competently. That message seemed to resonate with a majority of voters, though Haywood said there is work to do.

“So much still needs to change,” Haywood said.

Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jeff Overand echoed that. 

“I think we have a lot of work to do but we are very much on the right track,” he said.

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