Maricopa County residents are paying the price for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's focus on immigration enforcement with longer wait times for emergency responses, fewer criminal investigations and a plunging arrest rate, a newspaper investigation found.
The sheriff's office began to focus on immigration enforcement more than two years ago and almost immediately saw a rapid decline in response times, which had been improving in the previous two years, the East Valley Tribune investigation found. It also began experiencing budget overruns due to skyrocketing overtime, much spent on the immigration effort.
Most affected were remote rural communities in the sprawling county, where Arpaio stripped deputies from beat patrols to staff his new immigration enforcement team.
As a result, even serious criminal investigations began to suffer, the Tribune reported. In El Mirage, for instance, sheriff's detectives did little or no investigation into at least 30 violent crime cases, including a dozen reported sexual assaults, during 2006 and 2007.
The lack of significant work on those cases prompted the sheriff's office to open an internal affairs investigation.
Arpaio and top sheriff's officials acknowledge the lagging emergency response times and a swelling caseload but deny that immigration enforcement is to blame. And they argue that arresting illegal immigrants is central to their operations because that's what county residents want.
”The people agree with what I'm doing, a very high percentage,'' Arpaio says. ”So I do know I'm doing the right thing for the people I serve. That's what I'm supposed to be doing, serving the people.''
The overtime spent on immigration operations nearly busted the sheriff's budget, forcing it to close facilities across the county. Sheriff's officials have said state and federal grants covered all the expense.
The sheriff's office has said that other factors also led to soaring overtime spending, including other extensive investigations (including one into a purported death threat against Arpaio), increasing case loads and a shortage of deputies.
The change in priorities has come with a big price for rural residents who rely on the sheriff for protection.
Deputies patrol a jurisdiction larger than the state of New Jersey, with thousands of residents who can live miles apart. Most Phoenix-area cities have their own police departments, leaving the sheriff to run the jails and patrol outlying rural areas, towns and contract cities. Staffing is a problem because deputies often leave for higher-paying departments elsewhere.
In the rural community of Aguila west of Wickenburg, residents have complained loudly about dropping numbers of patrols and slowing response times since the illegal immigration push began.
”We were calling the sheriff's department and they might show up that day,'' said Starr Shipman, a waitress at Coyote Flats Cafe and Bar. ”They might show up three days later.''
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has set a five-minute target response time for ”priority one'' calls, or life-threatening emergencies.
In 2004 and 2005, the sheriff reported to county overseers that his patrol division had significantly shortened its emergency response times, thanks mainly to a pay increase that was finally keeping deputies in place. Patrol cars were arriving within five minutes on 45 percent of the priority one calls, the data show.
That meant deputies responded quickly on about 1,850 calls when people were in danger, an improvement of 800 calls over the year before.
But the improvements didn't last long. Arpaio decided to pull deputies from patrol beats, often without replacing them, to staff his new human smuggling unit, and response times climbed.
In 2006, the data show that deputies arrived within five minutes on 1,780 emergencies; last year, it was only 1,550. Each year, deputies arrived late to more than 3,000 calls, about two-thirds of the time.
Arpaio's director of media relations, Lisa Allen, said response times are up because calls for service have increased dramatically. But the sheriff's own numbers show the office got about 700 fewer calls in 2007 than it did the year before.
A former federal immigration official agreed that shifting focus to immigration from regular police work comes at a price.
”A lot of this is the trade-off,'' said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. ”If the local police are doing federal law enforcement, other law enforcement responsibilities get a lower priority by default.''
To read about a discrimination-based lawsuit filed against Arpaio, go to http://www.azcapitoltimes.com/story.cfm?id=9093