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Justice Dept. Files Against America’s `Toughest Sheriff’

PHOENIX (CN) - The U.S. government says in Federal Court that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies target Latinos during traffic stops and suppression sweeps, discriminate against Latino prisoners with limited English speaking skills, and retaliate against critics.

"Latinos in Maricopa County are frequently stopped, detained, and arrested on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and Latino prisoners with limited English language skills are denied important constitutional protections," according to the complaint.

The lawsuit comes after the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division found in December that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely than non-Latino drivers to be stopped in Maricopa County.

Because Latinos "are systematically denied their constitutional rights; the relationship between MCSO and key segments of the community is eroded, making it more difficult for MCSO to fight crime; and the safety of prisoners and officers in the jails is jeopardized," the complaint states.

The Justice Department says that the Sheriff's Office and Arpaio "set the tone and create a culture of bias."

The Sheriff's Office allegedly "promotes, and is indifferent to, the discriminatory conduct of its law enforcement officers, as is demonstrated by inadequate policies, ineffective training, virtually non-existent accountability measures, poor supervision, scant data collection mechanisms, distorted enforcement prioritization, an ineffective complaint and disciplinary system, and dramatic departures from standard law enforcement practices."

The training information provided to deputies and members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Human Smuggling Unit is not "calculated to differentiate between undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens who are Latino, or Latinos who are otherwise lawfully in the United States" the Justice Department says.

"For example, in determining which cars to stop and which people to detain, MCSO officers routinely rely upon factors such as whether passengers look 'disheveled' or do not speak English," according to the complaint. "These criteria, as routinely cited by HSU officers, are insufficient to provide reasonable suspicion that a vehicle contains undocumented persons or to justify the detention of passengers for questioning."

Detention officers employed by the Sheriff's Office "routinely have refused to accept grievance forms or prisoner request orders ('tank orders') written in Spanish," the government says.

In some cases, female Latino prisoners "have been forced to remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation because of MCSO's failure to ensure that detention officers provide language assistance in such circumstances," the complaint states.

Jail employees are also alleged to call Latinos "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," and "stupid Mexicans."

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez criticized the defendants in a statement Thursday.

"At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving Sheriff Arpaio and a sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics in a variety of unlawful ways," Perez said in a statement. "Constitutional policing and effective policing go hand in hand. The complaint outlines how Sheriff Arpaio's actions were neither constitutional nor effective. No one in Maricopa County is above the law and the department will fight to ensure that the promise of the Constitution is realized by everyone in Maricopa County."

Former Chief Deputy David Hendershott "filed five separate complaints with the Arizona State Bar targeting attorneys who spoke out publicly against MCSO and Arpaio," and "four complaints with the Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct targeting judges who had either made public statements critical of MCSO or had issued decisions that Arpaio or MCSO command staff disliked," the lawsuit claims.

Each of these complaints was dismissed.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas "filed a lawsuit accusing people who had publicly criticized MCSO of conspiracy in a criminal enterprise," but the case was "soon abandoned as unjustified," the lawsuit claims.

Thomas was disbarred in April following a disciplinary hearing that found his "press releases condemned others for public dollars misspent and yet it appears he lavishly spent millions over his budget demanding to retain the right to hire the special lawyers he chose, while refusing the right to independent counsel for others."

The Justice Department seeks an order stopping Arpaio and his deputies from "engaging in any of the predicate discriminatory acts forming the basis of the pattern or practice of unlawful conduct."

Arpaio must also adopt policies that stop discrimination in "policies and training; non-discriminatory policing and jail operations; stops, searches, and arrests; response to crimes of sexual violence; posse operations; jail operations; supervision; misconduct complaint intake, investigation, and adjudication; retaliation; oversight and transparency; and community engagement."

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