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Arizona sheriff likely in contempt for internal investigation backlog

The backlog is so severe the Maricopa County Sherriff's Office would need two years and 117 more investigators to catch up with internal inquiries.

PHOENIX (CN) — A federal judge said Tuesday he is likely to find the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in contempt for understaffing positions responsible for investigating possible internal misconduct amongst its officers.

The inquiry into the office stems from a 2007 class action against the agency and then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, claiming officers in the agency racially profiled Latinos and unlawfully detained them during crime-suppression sweeps.

Through the years, Arpaio refused to comply with orders from U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow to stop immigration patrols and to turn over traffic-stop video evidence. Those failures led to a civil contempt ruling in 2016, months before Arpaio, a Republican, lost reelection as the county’s top law enforcement officer to current Sheriff Paul Penzone, a Democrat.

Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt in 2017, but was pardoned by President Donald Trump that same year.

In 2021, Snow appointed law enforcement expert Michael Gennaco to investigate and propose solutions to the agency's internal investigation backlog. Gennaco, in a report released in July, found it would take approximately 117 additional investigators two years to catch up on the caseload.

Currently, the county has seven investigator positions open, with two additional civilian jobs proposed.

"It seems to me if we need 117 to clear up the backlog, we aren't even getting close to the numbers required to get things done,” Snow said during Tuesday's hearing.

Snow alluded to willful contempt in hiring investigators, particularly for internal investigators.

"I do have very grave concerns about the staffing up of the PSB (Professional Standards Bureau)," he said. "I understand that the sheriff's office was engaging in advocacy, but when they told me that they'd raised the personnel in their office to 50 and, in fact, hadn't raised their investigators at all, that was somewhat bothersome to me."

Snow was also troubled by an Arizona statute allowing the extension of the 180-day internal investigation period by an additional 300 days. If the investigation does not conclude in that period, it is dropped completely.

"The current sheriff's department is making it impossible for any discipline … to be imposed on police officers. Or on deputies who may merit discipline because of the length of the delay," he said. “I am interested in speeding up compliance in a way that will be consistent as possible. And to the extent it is inconsistent with my order, in compliance with state law.”

Snow suggested the seven open investigator positions be filled in 60 days, but he was not sure the agency would be willing to timely initiate those hires. He referred to recommendations by plaintiff's counsel that the court create an incentive via a weekly fine after 60 days expire. The fine is the amount necessary to recruit, hire, train and compensate a full-time investigator for one year.

"And certainly, if you start accruing enough in that fund, I imagine that you shall have people that are willing to do the job," Snow said.

The sheriff's office objected to the requirements to fill the investigator positions within two months, claiming it has specific standards to meet in hiring.

"I'm going to require that you move quickly," Snow said. "If you have to do that by virtue of a court order, it will be by a court order. I don't like to assume responsibility for your budget and it's only after six years that I'm willing to do that."

Snow did not say when he would issue a contempt order.

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