Federal Investigators Rip ‘Toughest Sheriff’ | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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Wednesday, November 29, 2023 | Back issues
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Federal Investigators Rip ‘Toughest Sheriff’

PHOENIX (CN) - U.S. Justice Department finds Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies racially profile Latinos, retaliate against critics and have adopted a "chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations."

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped in Maricopa County than non-Latio drivers, Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez said Thursday.

"The absence of clear policies and procedures to ensure effective and constitutional policing, along with the deviations from widely accepted policing and correctional practices, and the failure to implement meaningful oversight and accountability structures, have contributed to a chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations," Perez wrote in a letter to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

"We find that MCSO deputies, detention officers, supervisory staff, and command staff, including Sheriff Arpaio, have engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos," Perez added. "This discrimination flows directly from a culture of bias and institutional deficiencies that result in the discriminatory treatment of Latinos."

While targeting Latinos and concentrating resources on fighting illegal immigration, the MCSO may have ignored other priorities and allowed violent crime in the county to rise, the report says.

"MCSO's prioritization of immigration enforcement may have compromised its ability to secure the safety and security of Maricopa County residents," Perez's letter says. "Since MCSO shifted its focus toward combating illegal immigration, violent crime rates in the county have increased significantly as compared to similarly situated jurisdictions. From 2004 to the end of 2007, reported violent crimes grew by over 69 percent, including a 166 percent increase in homicides over the three-year period. Since 2008, violent crime rates have remained at roughly the same level in Maricopa County, while dropping by over 10 percent in similarly situated jurisdictions."

The Justice Department also found evidence that Arpaio's department may have failed to properly investigate hundreds of alleged sexual assaults and child molestations, many of them involving Latinos.

"We are continuing our review of allegations that MCSO has failed to investigate a large number of sex crimes," Perez wrote. "The Sheriffs office has acknowledged that 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation were not properly investigated over a three-year period ending in 2007."

A defiant Arpaio called the report politically motivated during a press conference late Thursday in Phoenix.

"By their actions today, President Obama and a band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink-neon sign at the Arizona-Mexico border saying welcome all illegals to the U.S., our home is your home," Arpaio said, according to the Arizona Republic.

Soon after the report became public, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano pulled the MCSO out of the federal Secure Communities Program.

"The Department of Homeland Security is troubled by the Department of Justice's findings of discriminatory policing practices within the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office," Napolitano, who is Arizona's former governor, said in a statement. "Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust. DHS will not be a party to such practices."

Arpaio has received letters from constituents about Spanish speakers working at McDonalds and "dark-complected" day laborers hanging around corners looking for work, only to mark these letters as "intelligence" and use them as justification for immigration raids, the report says.

This culture has created a "wall of distrust" between police and the Phoenix metro area's Latino population, Perez wrote.

"MCSO deputies we interviewed admitted that the immigration enforcement program, which lacks basic accountability and quality control measures and is characterized by wideranging and poorly planned 'crime suppression' operations, has adversely affected their ability to obtain information and cooperation from the county's Latinos," the report says. "One deputy informed us that MCSO's 'aggressive' immigration interdiction efforts create a 'wall of distrust' that divides the Latino community and MCSO. Another deputy was told by his supervisors to expect that he would encounter hostility from people who believed they were being stopped because of their ethnicity. A different MCSO deputy bemoaned the impact of MCSO's immigration-related operations, stressing that they 'affect our ability to work in a community that hates you."'

Perez says MCSO has 60 days to take "clear steps toward reaching an agreement with the [Civil Rights] Division to correct these violations," or else face a federal lawsuit.

"The constitutional violations and institutional deficiencies highlighted above are the product of an ingrained culture that encourages and tolerates the discriminatory treatment of Latino persons and an agency that lacks the requisite policies and practices to ensure effective and constitutional law enforcement," Perez said.

"Reform will require sustained commitment to long-term structural, cultural, and institutional change."

Arpaio, who calls himself America's Toughest Sheriff, has reigned over Arizona's most populous county since 1993.

Investigators toured the sheriff's notorious county jail and interviewed dozens of current and former inmates. They found a common practice of denying civil rights to non-English-speaking inmates.

"MCSO detention officers refuse to accept forms completed by Latino LEP inmates in Spanish," according to the report. "Such forms include tank orders, which enable inmates to request basic daily services, and grievance forms, which enable inmates to identify and address alleged mistreatment. Even in instances when Spanish language requests are accepted, Latino LEP inmates face delays in services for not submitting requests and grievance forms in English."

The report also found that Arpaio and his department are ultrasensitive to any criticism, and have retaliated against community activists, public officials and others.

"We find that MCSO command staff and deputies have engaged in a pattern or practice of retaliating against individuals for exercising their First Amendment right to free speech," the report says. "Under the direction of Sheriff Arpaio and other command staff, MCSO deputies have sought to silence individuals who have publicly spoken out and participated in protected demonstrations against the policies and practices of MCSO-often over its immigration policies. MCSO command staff and deputies have arrested individuals without cause, filed meritless complaints against the political adversaries of Sheriff Arpaio, and initiated unfounded civil lawsuits and investigations against individuals critical of MCSO policies and practices."

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