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Sunday, July 14, 2024 | Back issues
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Arpaio Investigator Testifies, Begrudgingly

PHOENIX (CN) - An investigator in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Cold Case Posse invoked the Fifth Amendment Tuesday when asked about his involvement in an investigation of the federal judge overseeing Arpaio's civil contempt hearing.

In an October hearing Arpaio identified Mike Zullo as an intermediary between him and Dennis Montgomery, a private investigator hired to look into the sheriff's suspicions that the Department of Justice was conspiring against him.

Montgomery gained notoriety after the federal government awarded him millions of dollars for fake computer software that he claimed could catch terrorists by decoding messages hidden in broadcasts on the Al Jazeera network.

Zullo's testimony began in the last 15 minutes of court time Tuesday, which he spent responding to dozens of questions from attorney Stanley Young, repeatedly saying: "I'm taking the Fifth, sir."

Young's questioning ranged from whether Arpaio asked Zullo to tell Montgomery to investigate U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow to whether Zullo made audio recordings of his conversations with Arpaio, a five-term sheriff of Maricopa County.

Arpaio and four of his current and former aides face civil contempt charges for failing to train deputies on how to make constitutional traffic stops and failing to comply with a court order to deliver data to the court. If found in contempt, they could face criminal charges, fines and jail time.

The court was aware that Zullo planned to exercise his right against self-incrimination because he feared he could criminally implicate himself and he could not afford legal representation. Maricopa County declined to pay for an attorney to represent Zullo because he is not named in a civil claim.

After weeks of testimony indicating that Arpaio and his aides acted in violation of the court order, the defense spent most of Tuesday rolling out praise for reforms taken by the Sheriff's Office after the order was issued.

Capt. Russell Skinner, now a commander with the lake patrol division, was assigned to the Court Implementation Division (CID) after it was created in response to Judge Snow's orders.

In October 2013, Snow ordered Arpaio and the Sheriff's Office to comply with a list of reforms, including appointment of a federal monitor; enhanced data collection, record keeping and training; and a video recorder in every patrol vehicle to record every traffic stop. The reforms came after Snow found the Sheriff's Office had violated the civil rights of Latino plaintiffs by racially profiling them and subjecting them to traffic stops and arrests without probable cause.

"Historically, the Sheriff's Office was not good with record keeping or keeping traffic stop data," Skinner acknowledged.

After reaching out to different agencies to see how they complied with similar orders, Skinner traveled to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, which had a "high rate of shootings."

After a wave of police-involved shootings in 2011, the Department of Justice's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services investigated Las Vegas Metro and provided it with information on changes it could make to reform. Skinner saw it had a bureau of internal oversight and shooting review boards, and visited its training facility.

"I don't think I had a good grasp or knowledge of everything that was going to be before us," Skinner said. "It was certainly a huge undertaking. ... A lot of things are riding on the agency in the fact that this is a federal court order so we better do it right and we better do it right the first time around."

Since the CID division was created, Skinner - who later became its commander - says a number of reforms were made in the Sheriff's Office to comply with the order, including implementing use of a software program - TraCS - that gives officers in the field the ability to do e-ticketing, crash reports, warnings and incidental contacts.

"Not only that but it helps solidify or build a bridge in printing a receipt" for the driver, Skinner told the court. Snow's order required the Sheriff's Office to create traffic stop procedures and deliver training that requires all deputies to act in a standardized manner.

Despite previous testimony in the contempt hearing that showed Arpaio taking actions or making orders in violation of the order, Skinner had nothing but praise for his "occasional" interactions with Arpaio.

"He was very professional; he knew we had a job to do," Skinner said. He said that he was treated similarly by Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan, one Arpaio's aides accused of contempt.

"I have the best of interest in this agency, and the people in this agency," Skinner testified. "I want to retire knowing that the agency is on the right track."

In questioning Skinner, Young doubted the reforms.

"The monitor has said [the Sheriff's Office] has reached 28 percent compliance," Young told the court, reading from a report issued by the court-appointed monitor. "'Slight gains' is what the monitor says."

Skinner disagreed.

"Not having all the facts in front of me, I could not make a statement other than if things were slow to progress there was a lot of training being finalized," Skinner said. "Whether or not certain things - whether they be policy or training - actually deliver might be viewed as a slow process."

In a testy exchange, Young asked why training programs for supervisors weren't delivered by the end of March 2014.

"That's not acceptable, would you agree with that?" Young asked.

"Not wholeheartedly," Skinner responded.

"You were, as commander of CID, not able to get the supervisor training completed," Young said.

"We helped coordinate the efforts of our training bureau to make sure they got the training completed," Skinner responded.

Zullo will continue testifying when the hearing resumes Thursday.

Follow @jamierossCNS
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