How does Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur separate her role as a mom from her role as public servant? She doesn’t.
Lots of jobs have flexible, family-friendly schedules. Sheriff isn’t one that typically comes to mind. And yet Arlington County Sheriff Beth Arthur somehow finds the time to pick up her son’s hockey skates, cheer at his games and make it home for family dinners almost every night.
Born in Lynchburg, Va., Arthur grew up in the Richmond suburbs. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1983 with a degree in mass communications and public relations and a passion for politics. After working for Gov. Chuck Robb, she took a position as a budget technician with the Arlington County Sheriff’s office, intending to stay just a year or so. Twenty-seven years later, she’s in charge.
Today Arthur, 53, lives with her husband, Joel Lovelace—director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Program Planning, Evaluation and Management—in Arlington’s Rock Spring neighborhood. They have two sons: Kenneth, 18, a freshman at Louisiana State University; and Stephen, 15, a sophomore at Yorktown High. She chatted with us while Stephen was at hockey practice.
In college you had no plans to pursue law enforcement. What changed?
I moved to Arlington in January 1986 to work in the sheriff’s office for a few years. My goal was to then work for Gov. Chuck Robb when he ran for the U.S. Senate. But by the time [his Senate bid came around], I really liked what I was doing and who I was working with. I had a good job and was making a good income. Moving to a job on the campaign trail or on the Hill would have been taking a step back in both job and pay as a “newbie.”
How did you become sheriff?
My predecessor had just been reelected sheriff in November of 1999 when he told me that he had applied for the executive director job at the National Sheriffs’ Association. I think he did it on a whim. Long story short, he got the job and said, “I want you to consider being appointed [interim] sheriff and then running.” I went home and talked to my husband, Joel, thinking it was an insane idea. My children, at the time, were 5 and 2. But Joel was supportive from the beginning. He told me I might not get the chance to run again and that we would make it work.
Have you ever arrested anybody?
No. And I don’t carry a gun, though I am qualified to carry one. As sheriff, most of my responsibility is running the Arlington County detention facility [which has roughly 625 inmates at any given time], as well as court security. The sheriff’s office is not considered primary law enforcement (whereas the police department is), so my staff members do not typically make arrests. But they do go through academy training to become certified law enforcement officers.
What is the relationship between your office and the police department?
We attend the same academy, but my staff attend it for 24 weeks (compared to 20 for police officers) to become certified in jail and courthouse security, prisoner transportation, and service of civil process and criminal warrants. We do joint emergency preparedness training with the police on a regular basis…and we assist with various community events, such as the Marine Corps Marathon and DUI checks. We have a great partnership.
You’ve been praised for initiatives such as “Read Me A Story,” which allows incarcerated moms to record themselves reading books for their kids.
Yes, but I’m not going to take all the credit for that one. An employee of mine read about a similar effort and suggested we try it. I was happy to add it to our programs.
What are some of the other programs you’ve introduced?
We also do an incarcerated mothers program that allows female inmates to have contact visits with their kids. We do it twice a year, at Christmas and around Mother’s Day. A similar program allows incarcerated fathers to see their kids once a year, around Father’s Day.
Why the emphasis on parenting?
I tell people all the time, “If I don’t raise good kids, I haven’t done anything in life.” Being a parent is my top priority. It’s important. Getting yourself messed up and involved in stuff that locks you up in jail is not very helpful to your children.
What other accomplishments are you proud of?
The county jail recycles, and a ton of trash is now composted. Some other sheriffs like to give me a hard time for being liberal. I say it’s progressive.
What gets composted?
We serve three meals a day, so there’s a lot of trash in leftover food and vegetable peels. Food, napkins and milk cartons made out of paper can go into composting, too.
That is cool. Was it your idea?
At first I was just pushing the recycling. We buy a ton of newspapers and that’s a lot of paper trash. Plus, the inmates buy things from the canteen that can be recycled. The County Department of Environmental Services asked, “Would you be interested in composting?” And I said, “Absolutely.” The county was spending so much money collecting trash. We still have to pay to have the compost removed, but there are cost savings.
I know you’re a loyal Caps and Redskins fan. What else do you do in your free time?
I try to exercise every day. And I like to read trashy novels—things that are mindless. It drives my husband crazy, but I deal with so much reality at work that the last thing I want to do at home is read something intense.
You’re also a hockey mom. Does the sheriff’s badge give you any special authority at Kettler?
Hahaha. No. Although sometimes we all wish it did…like when the refs make a bad call.
It seems like you’d be tougher than the average hockey parent, given your job.
I don’t know. I’m the mom of a goalie. I understand the pressure my son is under and I sympathize.
Are you the first female sheriff in the state of Virginia?
No, although I am the first female county sheriff in Virginia. The first in the state was Michelle Mitchell from the City of Richmond. Now we have three other female sheriffs in the state.
But you are the first female president of the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, correct?
Yes, I’m the first woman to hold the position. But that’s not really relevant to our goals. I represent all sheriffs.
What are some of the association’s goals?
Our number one priority during the Virginia General Assembly session this year was to get pay increases for deputies across the Commonwealth. Our number two priority was getting a bill passed that provided an increase in liability insurance up to $1.5 million for sheriffs and deputies, as well as immunity for a judgment in excess of $1.5 million. I am happy to say we were successful in getting both accomplished.
Any advice to other women trying to find balance between career and home?
We should all be supportive of each other. Sometimes it’s not always the case in the working world.
You are a sheriff, but you’re also a parent. Does that life experience carry over into how you approach your job?
After Sept. 11, there was a lot of discussion around sheltering in place— specifically, sheltering schoolchildren in place and ensuring their safety by locking down schools. This gave rise to some ethical debates over protocol. What would you do if a parent came banging on the door after a dirty bomb had gone off in the metropolitan area and the schools were in lockdown? We were having meetings and I’m raising my hand going, “But, but, but, but…” Finally the county manager asked, “Is this the sheriff talking? Or the mother talking?” I can’t take the sheriff out of the mother or the mother out of the sheriff. You get it all at once.
Wendy Kantor was surprised and thrilled that her baby boy napped the entire time she talked to the sheriff. This is her first article since becoming a mom.