(Updated at 12:10 p.m.) Arlington’s police union is endorsing challenger Josh Katcher in the race for Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Katcher is running against incumbent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary to determine who has the local party’s nomination to run this fall.
Dehghani-Tafti campaigned on criminal justice reform and won her first term in 2019, after beating Theo Stamos, for whom Katcher previously worked (he also worked for Dehghani-Tafti before leaving the office).
The incumbent has focused her re-election campaign on the reforms she has made, such as ending cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case, and prosecution for marijuana possession. She has endorsements of several current and former state legislators and members of the Arlington County Board and School Board and the Washington Post.
Katcher has focused on allegations of rising crime, staffing issues within the top prosecutor’s office and crime victims who say they were not respected. He picked up the endorsement from Arlington Coalition of Police (ACOP) because, the organization says, the current relationship between local police and the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney is crumbling.
“ACOP has spent the last 7 months attempting to stay out of the Commonwealth Attorney’s race,” it said in a press release. “We understood that whoever won, officers would still need to have a working relationship with the winner. Although that current working relationship is extremely poor, we worried that any statement would make the relationship even worse.”
The organization says it was reluctant to speak up until now — with less than a month before the primary on June 20 — but wants to correct the record about statements Dehghani-Tafti has made on the campaign trail.
In a recent Arlington County Civic Federation debate, the current Commonwealth’s Attorney said her office has a “healthy” relationship with officers and that prosecution rates are down because police are apprehending fewer people.
ACOP says this “could not be any further from the truth” and it “cannot sit by idly while she intentionally misleads the public.”
It listed some of the issues officers say they have with how the top prosecutor’s office currently runs:
On almost a daily basis, members of ACOP email their union representatives with complaints about Ms. Tafti’s office. The most common recurring complaints are about a lack of preparation from the prosecutors, subpoenas not being issued in a timely manner (sometimes never being issued at all), a case getting dismissed without ever contacting the arresting officer, DUIs being plead down to reckless driving with no explanation, subsequent DUIs being plead down to first offenses, and a general lack of communication about cases and outcomes.
Citing felony arrest and indictment data, it countered a claim she made in the debate that police are apprehending fewer people. ACOP says the number of arrests is “the highest it has been for at least six years,” if marijuana possession arrests are removed.
“Felony arrests in Arlington County have remained relatively consistent with the exception of 2020 during Covid,” the release said. “What has not remained consistent is the percentage of felonies that were indicted by the Commonwealth Attorney.”
In the 2019 fiscal year — the year before Dehghani-Tafti took office — approximately 41% of felony arrests were indicted to Arlington County Circuit Court, compared to 15% in 2022, ACOP says, citing recent budget materials.
Dehghani-Tafti provided data the state collected from Arlington indicating a steady decline in arrests made since 2012. while a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.
Meanwhile, a sharp uptick in simple assaults — from 721 in 2018 to 1,146 in 2021 — may explain an uptick in offenses.
As for indictments, Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow these are lower because her office is not hitting defendants with several charges related to one criminal incident, a tactic she says prosecutors can employ to force defendants to plead guilty and not go to trial.
“It’s our policy to not stack charges and over charge,” she recently told ARLnow. “We’re not afraid to go to trial and check our evidence with fair and reasonable charges. When we go to trial, we win more than the prior administration.”
Between 2020 and 2022, prosecutors in her office obtained guilty verdicts on cases with one or more charges 75% of the time compared to 64% under Stamos, she said. Guilty verdict for the most serious charges brought forward, across all misdemeanors and felonies tried, was 72% between 2020-22, up from 57% from 2015 to 2019.
(The chart, also provided by ACOP, does not include data for 2017 or 2018. ACOP said it could not find publicly available data for those years. ARLnow also could not immediately find data from those years in budget documents.)
ACOP said it has worked with Katcher for the last decade and see him as “experienced and competent.”
“Josh will be able to lead the office through his experience and mold the attorneys in the office into skilled litigators,” the organization said. “Most importantly, we know Josh will get the relationship between ACPD and the CWA office back on track to where prosecutions are a collaborative effort between the two departments.”
(Updated at 12:30 p.m.) A year ago, Arlington County launched a diversion program for youth and young adults who commit certain misdemeanor and felony crimes.
Heart of Safety is a voluntary program facilitated by Restorative Arlington, a nonprofit that facilitates meetings between victims who choose this approach and the people who committed crimes against them.
The Commonwealth’s Attorney or the local court services unit — which provides services to juvenile court-involved youth and their families — refers victims of crimes who want to stay out of court proceedings to the program.
There, victims and the people who harmed them meet with facilitators and each other to discuss what happened and why, the results of that crime and how the perpetrator can make amends — typically by adhering to a restoration plan to which both parties agree. This approach borrows from longstanding indigenous traditions that have been implemented and studied in some U.S. communities.
The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney has referred eight cases to the program as of November. That figure comes from a Freedom of Information Act request filed last fall by the campaign to elect Josh Katcher, challenger to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti in the Democratic primary on June 20. His campaign released its findings on Friday.
Program Executive Director Kimiko Lighty says that the number of cases that have gone through the program is higher. It does not include cases referred from court services unit, those completed in 2022, ongoing cases, or those on who are on a six-month waitlist that she would take if the program had more capacity.
“Heart of Safety is working at capacity right now and has a waitlist,” Lighty says. “There are people who are saying, ‘We would rather wait to have a restorative option than go to court.'”
Participants include people from middle school through 26 years old who committed a fairly broad range of crimes, though Lighty did not elaborate on what kind, citing privacy.
“What they have in common, every single one, is that the person harmed asked for a restorative process,” Lighty said.
Dehghani-Tafti, elected in 2019 on a platform of prosecutorial reform, has said on the campaign trail that Heart of Safety is an avenue for victims to heal and for people who committed crimes to reckon with their actions, demonstrate remorse and commit to making amends.
She tells ARLnow the cases that went through the program “have gone really well” and been consistent with a memorandum of understanding and referral policies governing the program, both of which were provided to ARLnow.
Katcher and his team take issue with how the program has been promoted and how much credit Dehghani-Tafti can take for it, maintaining that people should be skeptical about why Dehghani-Tafti is not more forthright about program outcomes.
His team requested the number and types of cases that have gone through Heart of Safety, the number referred back to the courts, the memorandum of understanding and referral criteria governing the program, and a definition of recidivism.
In response, his campaign says it received the number of cases, eight, and the same documents Dehghani-Tafti’s campaign provided to ARLnow.
“Parisa Dehghani-Tafti wants the community to think of her as a reformer. However, when pressed for information to prove that she’s living up to our community’s expectations for what that means, her office refuses to answer basic questions around the efficacy of her highly-touted commitment to restorative justice,” the campaign manager for Katcher, Ben Jones, said in a statement.
“Her refusal to answer simple questions about a program that she has touted as being one of her signature promises is another sign that she’s not the right person to be trusted with ensuring our community’s safety and security,” he continued.
Arlington residents may soon hear the dulcet sounds of John Legend on the phone, asking them to vote for Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
The singer, songwriter, actor and media personality is again weighing in on the local race for Commonwealth’s Attorney. An advocate for justice reform, Legend endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in 2019 and has recorded an endorsement for the prosecutor’s reelection this year.
“Hi, this is John Legend,” the singer’s voice will say to those who pick up the phone. “Why am I calling is because Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, your Commonwealth’s Attorney who needs your vote in the June 20 Democratic primary.”
“Parisa has delivered on her promises,” Legend continues. “She stopped prosecuting low level marijuana possession and ended cash bail. Under Parisa’s leadership, Arlington is one of the safest cities in America. Parisa’s work to establish treatment programs and reduce racial disparities has made her a leader on safety and justice reform both locally and nationwide.”
Dehghani-Tafti posted a copy of the recording on social media this morning.
I'm excited to announce the endorsement of singer, songwriter, and philanthropist, John Legend. John's activism has led him to work on justice reform in America and I'm proud to receive his support! Here's the call YOU could receive from him soon! @johnlegend pic.twitter.com/3PaKJr3lj0
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) May 8, 2023
Dehghani-Tafti is facing a challenge in the Democratic primary from her one-time deputy, Josh Katcher.
The challenger has outraised his former boss $105,562 to $66,613, though Dehghani-Tafti has criticized him for accepting money from GOP donors. Katcher, who also describes himself as a justice reformer, has linked a local rise in crime — albeit one in line with national trends — with the alleged “multiple failings” of Dehghani-Tafti’s leadership.
While lacking the star power of John Legend, Arlington County Board member Libby Garvey is among those who have endorsed Katcher.
(Updated at 11:40 a.m.) No defendant under 18 years old has been tried as an adult in Arlington County since Parisa Dehghani-Tafti became Commonwealth’s Attorney in 2020.
For Arlington’s top prosecutor, this is an important reform. It keeps children in a system designed for guiding them, and holding them accountable while providing rehabilitative services.
But Rose Kehoe, the mother of Braylon Meade, would have wanted to see the 17-year-old who killed her son while driving drunk last November tried as an adult. In a letter to state Sen. Barbara Favola (D) — shared with other elected officials and with ARLnow — she wrote the decision not to charge the teen as an adult in Arlington County Circuit Court is one reason they felt justice was not served and they were not heard.
“Meaningful reform requires nuanced thinking regarding the facts of each individual case and applying the law fairly and appropriately,” Kehoe wrote to Favola, who endorsed Dehghani-Tafti in her reelection campaign. “In the case of Braylon Meade, we have no doubt that Ms. Dehghani-Tafti’s political rigidity on the issue of refusing to charge juveniles as adults is what governed this case.”
“This was a campaign slogan that worked to drive voters to the polls in 2019 but when applied in the real world of running her office, it stripped our voice away from us and denied a meaningful discussion on how to seek justice for Braylon,” Kehoe continued.
She said Dehghani-Tafti categorically rejected trying the offending teen as an adult despite being two months shy of his 18th birthday at the time of the offense, “despite the defendant’s history of alcohol and THC abuse, despite him driving 94 miles per hour down Old Dominion Drive, despite him only applying his brakes for one half of one second.”
The teen was sentenced to one year of detention and two years probation, though Dehghani-Tafti sought three years in detention.
In a statement to ARLnow, Dehghani-Tafti empathized with the family but said many conditions have to be met to try a child as an adult, and it is not certain the offending teen would have met those criteria.
“As a mother, I know that the death of a child is life shattering. Braylon’s death is a devastating loss for his family and friends, and I am heartbroken over it,” she said. “I understand why Ms. Kehoe feels the way she does. And I don’t want to say anything that adds to their pain. There is simply no good outcome because the only good outcome would be for Braylon to be home.”
The decision to certify
State code allows juveniles to be transferred to adult court in limited situations and after considering several factors, such as the severity of the crime and if the child has committed other crimes in the past.
Factors that could lead to transfer include if the offense was premeditated and a weapon was used, Dehghani-Tafti said. Factors that may argue against transfer include the mental health of the defendant and the availability of services.
“All this is because we know from both experience and science, kids are different from adults,” Dehghani-Tafti said. “My team and I met with Braylon’s family, listened to them, and carefully considered this case — with the guideposts of justice and the safety of the community — before determining it was not an appropriate case for transfer. We pursued this case with diligence, and asked for the maximum sentence available, three years. After hearing both sides, the court gave 12 months with a period of probation.”
But Kehoe says she walked away from the one meeting her family had with Dehghani-Tafti feeling less considered than the defendant.
This past Friday, ABC true-crime show “20/20” threw a spotlight on the 1998 homicide of an Arlington woman and the acquittal of a major suspect, her then-fiancé, last year.
In “The Confession?” ABC went on a deep dive into the death of Andrea Cincotta in her Arlington apartment.
It explained how a confession 20 years later kicked off a special grand jury investigation into the person who confessed, convicted felon Bobby Joe Leonard, and his alleged accomplice, Cincotta’s fiancé James Christopher Johnson. It concludes with their indictment in 2021 and a murder trial in 2022.
Johnson, who was a primary suspect, he says he discovered Cincotta dead in the closet of the apartment they shared back in August 1998. Prosecutors alleged Johnson had hired Leonard to kill Cincotta for $5,000. Last fall, Leonard pleaded guilty and a trial jury acquitted Johnson, who had maintained his innocence.
The trial happened during the tenure of Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti. As the race to elect the next Commonwealth’s Attorney heats up, candidate Josh Katcher blasted Dehghani-Tafti — who was elected on a justice reform platform — in a statement highlighting the 20/20 episode.
“My opponent once described herself as an innocence protection attorney,” he said. “It is entirely beyond me how you square that statement with this prosecution.”
For the report, Johnson gave exclusive interviews to ABC, describing how his life changed the day he says he discovered Cincotta, dead, in a closet.
“Something like this… You’re never going to be the same,” Johnson told ABC. “I used to be a lot more trusting. I trusted everyone, trusted the police, and now my eyes have been opened.”
A criminal genius, or an innocent man who confessed to a murder he didn’t commit? Watch the exclusive 20/20 interview you won’t hear anywhere else. The all-new 20/20 with @RyanSmithTV drops TONIGHT at 9/8c on ABC. Stream on Hulu. pic.twitter.com/JQBUfbcTPB
— 20/20 (@ABC2020) March 10, 2023
Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow her office prosecuted the case after Leonard — already in prison for kidnapping, raping and attempting to kill a 13-year-old girl — confessed to killing Cincotta.
When someone is killed and we have evidence we believe is credible, it’s our job to stand up for them and for the community. We knew this was going to be a tough case and we took it to the community in the form of an investigative grand jury, the community investigated and brought back indictments for both Mr. Leonard and Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Leonard pleaded guilty and received a life sentence. We litigated Mr. Johnson’s case in the most transparent, fair way we could, giving them all the evidence we had and all the evidence they needed to defend their client. We don’t run away from hard cases and hard cases are the ones that go to trial. The system worked the way it was designed to work and I respect the jury’s verdict.
The episode walks through procedural and substantive missteps Johnson and his attorneys say Arlington County Police Department made investigating the crime in 1998 — and the prosecution made bringing the case to trial in 2022.
It says police processed the crime in a way that made it harder to find fingerprints on Cincotta’s throat. They questioned Johnson for 28 hours before he broke down and said he had a “vision” of harming Cincotta. He wrote this down, didn’t ask for an attorney, and was released, as the description of what he said he did did not match Cincotta’s autopsy.
“From the onset of the investigation, the Arlington County Police Department has remained committed to pursuing justice on behalf of Andrea Cincotta and her family,” ACPD said in a statement to ARLnow. “The court proceedings are the official release of information in this case and we’ll defer to the court records for additional information presented in this case.”
Two decades after the marathon interrogation, prosecutors used the “vision” statement to show the jury that Johnson lied to throw police off. Arlington Circuit Court Judge Judith Wheat ruled the statement was admissible, the Washington Post’s Tom Jackman, who was interviewed by ABC, reported last year.
The “20/20” episode cast doubt on the validity of this evidence.
“How did this case get charged? As a lawyer, I don’t get it,” a member of the defense team, Frank Salvato, told ABC. “I think prosecutors brought this case hoping they could catch lightning in a bottle.”
Jurors, meanwhile, did not buy the argument that the men knew each other.
“You don’t hire someone to kill someone whom you’ve never met,” jury foreman Chen Ling told ABC. “And, out of all the Bobby Joe Leonard testimony, he never claimed that they met. I feel like that was, for me, the important detail that gave reasonable doubt.”
They were wary of deals struck with Leonard to hear his confession and coax him onto the stand. In exchange to confessing to Arlington cold case Detective Rosa Ortiz in 2018 — when Commonwealth’s Attorney Theo Stamos was still in charge — Leonard asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty. Then, before he took the stand in 2022, he requested to be moved to a lower-security prison.
“We were aware that Bobby Joe Leonard was offered certain things in exchange for his testimony,” said a juror named Chris, who requested ABC withhold his last name. “It seemed to me the police were just hammering home what they took to be the case.”
But the special grand jury that initially investigated Johnson believed there was enough evidence to go to trial, points out Edward Ungvarsky, an Alexandria-based private criminal defense lawyer.
Ungvarsky tells ARLnow that this case is an example of the system working and credited Dehghani-Tafti for bringing the case to the special grand jury and sharing exculpatory information with the defense.
Prosecutors will convene special grand juries “if they are going to give the community, which is the people who comprise the grand jury, the opportunity and power to decide whether to bring charges and what charges to bring and to investigate the case,” Ungvarsky noted. “Using a special grand jury increases community empowerment and accountability in the charging, and provides greater transparency and fairness to the defendant and the defense.”
In addition, special grand juries often have higher standards than regular grand juries, which are more commonly used to indict someone. This process is transcribed and copies are given to defense lawyers before trial. Witnesses testify and jurors can ask questions.
The grand jury “was advantageous for the defense,” Ungvarsky said, adding that they also benefited from the prosecution making available to them a local expert in false confessions, former D.C. police Detective James Trainum.
Trainum said Johnson’s confession was false and advised the prosecution not to use it. Prosecutors shared his information with Johnson’s attorneys, Ungvarsky and one of Johnson’s defense attorney confirmed to ARLnow.
“In this case, there was… lots of favorable information to help the defendant help defend himself at trial, and I think that really needs to be recognize,” Ungvarsky said. “It’s proper to do so because it’s exculpatory, favorable evidence.”
Not providing favorable information, called a “Brady disclosure,” is more common, he says.
Commonwealth’s Attorney candidate Katcher, however, was more pessimistic in his reading. He says the case belies his opponent’s lack of experience.
Katcher’s full statement is below.
Real justice means only engaging in just prosecutions. The 20/20 exposé on my opponent’s decision to prosecute an innocent man for murder, highlights exactly why relevant experience matters when it comes to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.
This is not about trying ‘tough cases.’ This was about making a tough decision, and my opponent failed. Mr. Johnson will forever live as someone accused of murder.
My opponent once described herself as an innocence protection attorney. It is entirely beyond me how you square that statement with this prosecution.
The foreperson of the jury in the Johnson case asked, “Why did [the prosecution] even bother to bring the case?” My opponent owes an answer to Mr. Johnson and this community.
(Updated at 9:45 a.m. on 3/2/23) The man who tried to force his way into a locked-down middle school last June won’t be charged — but this clemency comes with conditions.
Alexander Sentayhu, who was charged with property destruction after he unsuccessfully tried to breach Thomas Jefferson Middle School, was given a deferred disposition rather than a sentence. That means he has a series of conditions to meet in order to have the charge dismissed.
Believing there was an active school shooter inside, he called 911 and indicated he was armed and trying to get inside to pick up his relatives, Arlington County Police Department said at the time. Sentayhu kicked the glass door, breaking it, and tried unsuccessfully to open it. He left before police arrived.
The building had been secured and locked to the outside due to a robbery at a 7-Eleven store nearby, but anxieties about school violence were heightened around this time following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Sentayhu turned himself in, was charged with Destruction of Property and released on bond while the General District Court reviewed his case. He was 25 at the time of his arrest.
The outcome of Sentayhu’s case is known as a “deferred disposition,” and it is an authority is granted to the court in Virginia code, according to Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti.
“He was required to fulfill conditions such as restitution and treatment, designed to ensure accountability and rehabilitation,” Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow.
The court reviewed his progress toward meeting these conditions during his appearance on Feb. 16 of this year.
“He successfully met those conditions and the resolution was supported by the parties involved,” she said.
Dehghani-Tafti did not elaborate as to what those conditions were.
Like probation, deferred dispositions usually come with conditions, according to an explainer by the Virginia State Crime Commission.
“In general, deferred disposition permits a court to withhold imposition of a sentence and place conditions on the defendant that, when met, allow for the charges to be dismissed,” it says. “Upon the satisfactory completion of all conditions, and if no other criminal offenses are committed during the period of deferment, the original charge may be dismissed.”
Sentayhu was previously in the news in early 2020, after he incurred steep medical costs while suffering a significant heart issue, and later after speaking at a White House press conference with Vice President Kamala Harris about the issue of medical debt.
Last week someone using an email account under Sentayhu’s name emailed ARLnow demanding that we “DELTE OR PERMANENT DELETE this FALSELY reported article ASASP,” in apparent reference to the report about his arrest. The email included a court record showing that the charge against him had been dropped.
They did not respond to emailed questions asking for his side of the story.
This Saturday, Arlington County’s top prosecutor, its Circuit Court clerk and some attorneys will help people who want their criminal record expunged for free.
The clinic will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. this Saturday (Dec. 3) at Arlington Presbyterian Church, located off Columbia Pike at 918 S. Lincoln Street. It will provide everything attendees need in one place to request arrests that did not result in convictions be removed from their record.
“Even if you’ve been arrested and not convicted, that arrest can follow you every time you apply for a job, school, or an apartment,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti tells ARLnow. “That harms people, their families, and the community. This clinic is one way we can mitigate that harm and give people a chance to live productive lives.”
She says this is the first time Arlington has offered an opportunity like this, but she hopes it isn’t the last.
“We wanted to do this for a long time but had to delay because of Covid,” she said. “Prince William has done it recently but I am not aware of any other jurisdictions in Virginia, though it is possible.”
Courts do not identify who is eligible to have their record expunged, so the aim of the clinic is to let people know what is available and what is possible, she says.
“The biggest difficulty is twofold: people don’t know they’re eligible and don’t apply, or others who are not eligible and apply are surprised to discover they are not,” she says. “So, one of our main goals is public education.”
2/2 The point of our clinic is simple: People who are committed to contribute to our community deserve the opportunity for a second chance.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) November 27, 2022
Ahead of the clinic, her office partnered with the public defender’s office, the defense bar, local churches, and other community organizations to reach people who may be eligible.
Attorneys will provide pro-bono assistance and clinic sponsors are covering the $86 filing fee on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Attendees need to bring the arrest warrant or final letter of disposition for each charge they would like to be expunged.
Currently, Virginia law limits expungement to narrow circumstances, Dehghani-Tafti says. The Virginia General Assembly passed a new law that would expand eligibility for record sealing, but the changes won’t take effect until July 1, 2025. Even so, there is still room for improvements, Dehghani-Tafti adds.
Clinic sponsors include the Arlington Branch of the NAACP, the Arlington Coalition of Black Clergy and Black Parents of Arlington, as well as local nonprofits Bridges to Independence, Offender Aid and Restoration, Arlington Thrive, Arlington for Justice and the D.C.-based Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, where Dehghani-Tafti used to serve as legal director.
OAR Associate Deputy Director Mustafa Saboor said in a statement that this clinic is an important first step in helping people overcome unjust barriers.
“Our criminal legal system is overly punitive, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the way arrest records destroy people’s ability to work and live,” Saboor said. “Because Black and Brown communities are overpoliced throughout this country, barriers to work because of arrest records fall disproportionately on those communities, further entrenching deeply racist lines in this country.”
Dehghani-Tafti’s former deputy prosecutor announced on Tuesday that he will be challenging her in the 2023 Democratic primary.
Flickr photo by Joe Gratz
Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti now has a challenger — someone who once worked for her.
Former Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Josh Katcher will go up against the incumbent in the Democratic primary in June. Katcher was hired as Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney by Theo Stamos in 2012 and he was promoted to deputy in 2021 near the outset of Dehghani-Tafti’s tenure.
“I am running because my opponent Parisa Dehghani-Tafti has not only broken her promises on reform prosecution, she also has broken the office in the process,” he said in an email to supporters, reprinted on Blue Virginia.
In a separate statement, tweeted out by Washington Post reporter Teo Armus, Katcher says he brings “unique insight” to the “multiple failings under the current administration’s leadership.”
“Crime is rising in Arlington,” Katcher said in the announcement. “There is no doubt about it and we have the data from the Arlington County Police Department to prove it. People are concerned about their safety and their property. Denying this or falsely alleging it is part of some media-driven narrative doesn’t solve the problem.”
Katcher said his first two promises are to acknowledge what he says is rising crime in Arlington and to increase transparency by releasing data housed in the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney within a year of taking office.
“The stakes could not be higher for our community,” Katcher said. “This election is not about whether we should be engaged in reform prosecution. The question is really whether we are going to miss this generational window of opportunity to get it right. Every victim, witness and defendant who comes through the doors of the courthouse deserves a Commonwealth’s Attorney that delivers real reform and real justice.”
Reported property crimes offenses increased 7.4% over 2020, according to the 2021 ACPD crime report, mostly driven by fraud and theft, but also increases in vandalism, robbery and burglary. In 2021, ACPD says it arrested several suspects who were “frequently responsible for multiple cases within Arlington or regionally.”
Crimes against people increased 24%, driven by increases in simple and aggravated assaults, an upward trend since 2018, according to ACPD stats. The police department, meanwhile, has cut some services, such as follow-up investigations on “unsolvable” property crimes, in the face of staffing shortages.
In interviews with ARLnow and statements on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says that crime is not, in fact, trending upward. She points to low murder rates and to the fact that Arlington’s overall crime rate remains well below state and national averages.
It’s not but I guess we’ll have to now suffer through the right wing talking points we just lived through in the midterms. It didn’t work for Fox News. It’s not going to work in Arlington.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) November 30, 2022
In response to concerns about property crime sprees and repeat offenders, she has said the approach for the last 40 years is to blame, as is a lack of investment in diversion programs.
Dehghani-Tafti beat incumbent Theo Stamos in the 2019 Democratic primary, with a platform focused on criminal justice reform. She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system such as cash bail and punishment for marijuana possession.
Since taking over, her office has launched a wrongful conviction unit and a restorative justice program for young adults. Her critics, however, say she offers criminals lenient plea deals and lets them go free as a result of bond reforms.
Ahead of the primary, Katcher says he faces “an uphill road” to victory because Dehghani-Tafti will “receive hundreds of thousands of dollars from PACs outside of our community.”
She has received a substantial donations from the Justice and Public Safety PAC, which is funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros. By contrast, Katcher promises a “people-powered” campaign.
Whoever wins the Democratic primary in June will face off, in November, with any independent or Republican challengers who may emerge over the next year.
Katcher was born and raised in Fairfax County, according to his website. He earned his law degree from the University of Virginia and briefly worked in litigation in New York City before becoming a local prosecutor.
He currently lives in Arlington with his wife Jill, their children Juliet and Jamie, and their dog Louie and has served in a variety of roles within the Arlington County Democratic Committee.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti announced today (Tuesday) that she is running for reelection as Commonwealth’s Attorney for Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.
Dehghani-Tafti, who campaigned on criminal justice reform, won her first term in 2019, after beating incumbent Theo Stamos (D) in a contentious and expensive primary that saw more than half a million dollars in donations to the challenger from a justice reform group.
She pledged to fix systemic flaws in the criminal justice system to which, Dehghani-Tafti asserted, Stamos was blind. This included cash bail, a requirement that defense attorneys hand copy all the prosecutor’s files about their criminal case and punishment for marijuana possession.
“Three years ago, when I first sought our community’s support, I promised that our community would become a model for how to run a criminal justice system that provides safety and justice for all,” Dehghani-Tafti said in a statement. “In just three years, in the midst of a global pandemic, in the face of constant resistance from the forces of the status quo, and fighting against a right-wing recall campaign against me, we’ve achieved that and more.”
The recall effort, which never amounted to a serious threat to her seat, was led by a political group named Virginians for Safe Communities that also targeted as her counterparts Buta Biberaj and Steve Descano in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, respectively.
Today, in a press release announcing her reelection bid and on Twitter, Dehghani-Tafti says she has made good on many of her campaign promises.
2/6 In just 3 years, in the midst of a global pandemic, in the face of a right-wing recall campaign and constant resistance from opponents of reform, I’ve kept my promises and together we’ve achieved extraordinary progress. Now I’m running to protect our progress. pic.twitter.com/5oACiH3bLq
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) November 22, 2022
Her office launched Virginia’s first Conviction Review Unit to investigate wrongful conviction claims, after the General Assembly passed a law expanding the pool of defendants who can challenge convictions.
It started a program, dubbed “the Heart of Safety” program, to find alternatives to prosecution in certain misdemeanor and felony cases committed by juveniles and young adults. It also partnered with local and national nonprofits to create diversion programs that reduce racial disparities in the criminal legal system, and received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to run restorative justice program.
In her Twitter thread, she added that her office never asked for cash bail and stopped prosecuting simple marijuana possession before the General Assembly decriminalized it. She says her office assigns one prosecutor to preside over a case from start to finish and allowed defenders to access court records electronically. Over the last three years, the jail population has dropped by 30%, as have certain types of crimes.
Additionally, she says, her office did not certify a single child as an adult in 2021 and Arlington’s behavioral health docket now allows individuals experiencing mental health crises to obtain treatment without incurring a criminal record.
“We did all of this while making sure our community remains safe,” she said in today’s statement. “While homicides rose 30% nationwide, in our community they dropped by 50%. In 2021 and for about 16 months, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church recorded zero homicides. This year, to date, one.”
Critics, however, have asserted that crime is up under her tenure. They accused Dehghani-Tafti offering criminals lenient plea deals and letting them go free as a result of bond reforms. In one case, an Arlington County Circuit Court judge rejected her plea deal — a local example of a broader judicial tug-of-war between judges and reform-minded prosecutors — and Dehghani-Tafti fought for prosecutorial discretion, with support from a criminal-justice organization. Read More
(Updated 4:45 p.m.) Gov. Glenn Youngkin has announced he’s increasing funds to police departments in a bid to reduce homicides, shootings and violent crime in Virginia.
The move, part of a new policy initiative from the Republican governor, will have implications for Arlington police, prosecutors and local restorative justice initiatives.
More than $100 million is slated to go toward state and local agencies to fix wage compression, increase recruiting efforts — including an expedited training program for police officers moving from one department to another — and provide more equipment and training, per a press release.
“The Arlington County Police Department (ACPD) has not been in touch with the Governor’s Office regarding yesterday’s announcement,” spokeswoman Ashley Savage tells ARLnow.
While the impact on ACPD is still hazy, Arlington Coalition of Police President Randall Mason confirms ACPD’s struggles with recruitment, retention and pay compression, which were exclusively reported by ARLnow last year, mirror those highlighted in Youngkin’s announcement.
Although the 2023-24 budget will play “the biggest role” in staffing, he said, Mason projects that Youngkin’s sped-up, eight-week training academy could be a boon, as it would make it easier for officers to switch from Maryland and D.C. departments to Arlington’s.
“Getting more officers onto the street quicker would benefit both officers and the public,” he said. “ACPD could see a significant benefit from the lateral academy depending on what happens in the upcoming fiscal year.”
Of ACPD’s 377 authorized, sworn police officers, 278 are able to provide solo law enforcement services, Savage said. Sixty positions are unfilled and 39 officers are in a training or have light duty status.
The police department’s 16% vacancy rate is higher than almost all of ACPD’s regional competitors and that gap is poised to widen, Mason said.
“We are on pace to lose more officers than we hire for the second straight year, increasing our vacancy rate even further,” he said. “That is in spite of ACPD’s recruitment staff traveling all over the East Coast, up to 400 miles away, trying to find new officers.”
Arlington’s 2022-23 budget includes merit-based increases, signing bonuses and work week reductions to try and address these challenges, but Mason says this doesn’t address another gripe officers have with pay — the county’s pay system.
Unlike other jurisdictions, which reward years of service with set pay increases, Arlington has an “open range” system where officers who have less seniority can end up getting paid more than an officer in their same rank, which is the case for a majority of ACOP members, he said.
“You don’t feel valued for the number of years you’ve been here, when someone who’s been here less time is making more than you,” he said.
Additionally, the hiring challenge comes down to the high cost of living.
“Arlington County is a very expensive place to live and work. Over 60% of ACOP members don’t live in the county,” he said. “It’s ACOP’s opinion that Arlington County’s failure to account for Arlington’s high cost of living is the main explanation for ACPD’s vacancy rate being higher than regional competitors.”
(Updated at 4:50 p.m.) The Arlington police union is pushing back on accusations that officers mishandled the search of a suspect who is now linked to a double murder.
In a rare public rebuke of Arlington’s top prosecutor, the Arlington Coalition of Police this afternoon sent out a press release accusing Commonwealth’s Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of “ineptitude” and “deflection of blame.”
The barbs stem from a 2020 case against Francis Rose, who is currently in jail in Alexandria after a series of break-ins at an apartment complex there reportedly led to two construction workers, a stepfather and stepson described as “innocent bystanders,” each being fatally shot in the head.
As ARLnow exclusively reported last week, Rose was released from Arlington County jail this past February after the 2020 case against him fell apart when a judge ruled that evidence was obtained during an unconstitutional search of his bag. With the gun and the drugs allegedly found in Rose’s bag disallowed as evidence, prosecutors dropped the charges against him, including possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Rose spent nearly two years in jail awaiting trial before being freed when charges were dropped.
“As court records show, our office attempted to proceed on those charges, but during a suppression hearing, a judge ruled that the police had performed an unconstitutional search and, as the law required, suppressed the evidence in the case,” Dehghani-Tafti told ARLnow last week. “Obviously, we could not prove a case without the evidence, and therefore dismissed it.”
“My heart breaks for the families and loved ones of the people killed this weekend,” she added.
Dehghani-Tafti subsequently said on Twitter, in response to criticism from the Virginia Republican party, that she’s “not casting blame on anyone” for the case falling apart.
4/4 I’m not casting blame on anyone: the police did a search they may have thought was constitutional; defense counsel zealously represented her client; the judge issued a ruling he believed correct. Those 2 deaths are tragic; that they’re now being exploited for lies is wrong.
— Parisa Dehghani-Tafti (@parisa4justice) July 20, 2022
The Arlington Coalition of Police, however, suggests that Dehghani-Tafti should be taking more of the blame, accusing her of “attempting to throw police officers under the bus for a lost [evidence] suppression hearing.”
The full statement from the union is below.
Commonwealth Attorney Parisa Dehghani-Tafti’s recent statements regarding the suppression hearing for Francis Rose, intentionally worded to cast fault on the officers involved, were based on self-preservation and deflection of blame. Unlike the Commonwealth Attorney, the Arlington Coalition of Police ordered the transcript of the hearing to have a full understanding of what happened before making public comment.
Prior to the hearing, the Assistant Commonwealth Attorney handling the case believed there would be “no problem” regarding the suppression and believed the officer’s actions were lawful. At the time of the suppression hearing, Mr. Rose had spent approximately two years in jail awaiting trial. The Commonwealth Attorney opposed giving him bond on multiple occasions. If the Commonwealth Attorney believed the actions of the officers were unlawful, opposing bond and holding Mr. Rose for two years would be unethical.