Long-serving Arlington Co. sheriff — and one of first female sheriffs in Virginia — to step down

The long-serving sheriff of Arlington County — and one of the first female sheriffs in the commonwealth of Virginia — announced Tuesday she will not seek reelection and will step down when her term ends next year.

Sheriff Beth Arthur has served as the county’s sheriff since 2000, when she was appointed to fill a vacancy. She won the post outright in a special election later that year and has been reelected five times. Before being named sheriff, Arthur worked in the office for 14 years as a budget analyst and director of administration.

She was last elected in 2019 with more than 97% of the vote.

“Honestly four years ago, when I ran, I knew that this would be my last term. And now I think it’s time — it’s time I hung up my spurs,” Arthur, 63, told WTOP in an interview. “I literally have spent more than half my life here, and I think it’s time for new leadership and new opportunities for other people.”

As sheriff, Arthur manages a staff of nearly 300 people and oversees the county’s jail — the Arlington County Adult Detention Center — and security for the county’s court system.

In a news release, Arthur said she is proud of the staff of the sheriff’s office “and the tireless work they do to ensure the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office is well managed and that everyone remanded to custody is treated with dignity and respect.

Beth Arthur has served as Arlington County sheriff since 2000. (Courtesy Arlington County)

Arthur’s announcement, which comes about a year before the end of her term, comes after scrutiny earlier this year over deaths at the county jail.

Seven incarcerated people in the jail have died in the past seven years, six of them people of color, including Darryl Becton, who died in October 2020 and whose family has filed a $10 million wrongful death lawsuit against the county.

“I am not in any way, shape, or form dismissing, or do not understand and carry a lot of heavy weight of anybody that dies in our custody,” Arthur said, adding that some of the deaths have involved underlying medical issues and substance abuse issues. The facility has made changes to drug screening and scanning technology in response.

“For anybody to suggest that people are not … getting medical care, it’s not factually accurate — they are,” she said.

Over her tenure, Arthur said she’s proud of efforts to expand programs for inmates in the facility, including major upgrades to the facility library. A new initiative is rolling out tablets loaded with podcasts and self-help resources for inmates to use.

“And what’s really grown a lot over the last couple of years, in particular, is mental health services,” she said. “Our population is way down, but the people we’re dealing with, take a lot more care and work.”

Arthur has spoken candidly in the past of the challenges of a broken mental health system, in which people in crisis are unable to access hospital beds and are essentially being dumped at the jail.

“The system is not fixed,” she said, pointing to the temporary closure last year of many of Virginia’s eight state mental health hospitals to new patients, which results in long waits for a bed to open up.

“We deal with it all the time,” she said. “The police department deals with it all the time. There are things that are trying to be put in place to help alleviate some of that (for) my staff and the police staff … but they’re not in place yet.”

She added, “The system isn’t better. We’re all trying to make it better and do better, but we’re not there yet.”

‘Are you speaking as the sheriff, or are you speaking as a mother?

Reflecting on her long career, Arthur acknowledged she is not one to look back. She said she’s looking forward to traveling — “I have my passport ready” — and spending more time with her family. Her husband retired about a year and a half ago, and one of her adult sons recently moved back to the area.

Among the other moments in a long career that she’s proud of is her office’s work on Sept. 11.

Arthur had only been on the job for about a year when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.

“I looked out my office window … I could see this plume of smoke come up out of the Pentagon,” she said.

Arthur, who was the first female sheriff of a Virginia county, immediately called the jail and initiated a temporary lockdown. Then she had to figure out how to pick up her two young sons from day care and school.

When she finally got ahold of her husband in D.C., she recalled, “He says, ‘You need to get the kids’ … And I’m like ‘Hello? I’m the sheriff.’ Like, I’m actually busy right now.” (A friend helped pick up one of her sons, she said).

She recalls the heroism of the moment.

Some of her deputies served as first responders helping search through the rubble.

The jail cafeteria was also pressed into service to make meals for first responders.

“I had judges that came over to the jail and said, ‘What can we do to help you?’ and went literally in the kitchen in the jail and helped make sandwiches and food along with the inmates in our facility,” she said.

She added, “Boy, you get your sea legs in a circumstance like that. ”

Later, in the command center that had been set up to manage the emergency response in the aftermath of 9/11, Arthur recalled a meeting involving the county manager, the superintendent of schools and other officials.

“I remember the county manager looking at me and going, ‘Are you speaking as the sheriff, or are you speaking as a mother?'” Arthur recalled. “And I I said, ‘Well, you can’t take the mother out of the sheriff. And you can’t take the sheriff out of the mother. So you can take it any way you want to. But I’m just telling you what my opinion is.'”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined WTOP.com as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at Nextgov.com, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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