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Irked Arlington Co. Board disavows Human Rights Commission letter

Advisory body had written to U.S. Department of Justice over conditions at jai

Did the Arlington County government’s Human Rights Commission exceed its authority in writing to the U.S. Department of Justice, demanding an investigation of the operation of the county’s jail facilities?

In the eyes of County Board members, they most certainly did. What the fallout will be remains to be seen.

Members of the commission on Feb. 9 voted 6-1, with one abstention, to send a lengthy letter to the Justice Department, mirroring concerns raised in 2022 by the Arlington branch of the NAACP about in-custody deaths at the roughly 300-bed detention facility.

During a 90-minute discussion that preceded the vote, some commission members urged restraint. Helenanne Connolly, a commission member and former chair, said that circumventing the county leadership could result in a showdown that might “completely overshadow” the substance of the panel’s concerns.

“What I would hate to have happen is for the message to be diluted because we are creating a procedural/jurisdictional side show,” Connolly said. (She ultimately abstained during the final vote.)

Connolly’s view seemed to hold sway until the meeting’s end, when momentum shifted toward a position of sending the letter and dealing with the ramifications later.

“What do we have to lose?” asked commission member Fatima Argun, who voted in favor of sending the letter.

But others remained unconvinced at that point in the discussion.

“I’m not sure I want to directly challenge them. They could retaliate,” commission member Stephan Kline said of the reaction of the county’s leadership.

And a reaction, if not quite retaliation, was quick in coming – County Board members quickly fired off their own letter to the Department of Justice, disavowing the commission’s letter.

The commission “does not have the authority to communicate with federal agencies in this manner without County Board approval,” County Board member Matt de Ferranti said in response to a GazetteLeader inquiry, pointing to both state law and a county ordinance to back up his view.

“[The commission’s] role is to advise the County Board; the proper procedure would have been to ask the County Board to make this request,” said de Ferranti, the board’s liaison to the commission.

(County officials knew of the existence of the letter, which had been approved not yet been sent, prior to the Feb. 9 commission meeting. De Ferranti could not attend that meeting owing to another engagement, but told the GazetteLeader he would be there for the next meeting, slated for March 14.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, Kline expressed concern that the County Board “could get rid of us” – an unlikely near-term scenario, perhaps, but one that could be achieved  piecemeal as members’ terms expire over the course of time.

Much of the push to circumvent established procedure and go directly to the Justice Department came from commission member Wanda Younger, a former Sheriff’s Office staff member who last year unsuccessfully challenged Sheriff Jose Quiroz in the Democratic primary. Quiroz, who had been appointed in January 2023 to succeed the retiring Beth Arthur, won the primary and was unopposed in the general election.

Younger contended the commission did have the statutory authority to send a letter to federal officials, arguing that county leaders were engaged in delaying tactics, “kicking the can down the road,” because they did not want to address the subject.

The Sheriff’s Office has undergone an evaluation by the National Institute of Corrections, which recommended changes to procedures that Quiroz said have been completed or are in process. Quiroz said he has asked the institute to return and provide a progress update and further assessment of procedures at the Arlington County Detention Facility.

The NAACP has voiced concern about a number of deaths among incarcerees, including two in the second half of 2023. Investigations into those incidents are ongoing, but “we do not want to prematurely change policy or practice prior to having all the information,” Quiroz said in a written response to questions from the Human Rights Commission. (While invited to the Feb. 9 meeting, no representatives from the Sheriff’s Office were in attendance.)

Whatever the fallout, Human Rights Commission members who voted to circumvent the county leadership seemed unmoved by the ruckus they unleashed.

“There are lives on the line,” Argun said.