Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has always been fond of saying he’s accountable only to the voters.
But the U.S. Department of Justice took the first steps Dec. 15 toward making Arpaio answer to the federal government after unveiling the results of a civil rights probe that one investigator described as “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States.”
The three-year civil rights investigation of the Sheriff’s Office found that deputies racially profiled Latino drivers, detention officers punished and withheld services from inmates who didn’t speak English, and that Arpaio retaliated against people who criticized his policies, said Thomas Perez, who heads the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division.
“We are not talking about isolated incidents,” Perez said. “We found discriminatory policing that was deeply rooted in the culture of the department, a culture that breeds a systemic disregard for basic constitutional protections.”
Arpaio, 79, who is up for re-election next year and has stock-piled a huge campaign war chest in advance of an expected difficult campaign, said he is not going to give in to demands of the federal government to change the agency he has run since 1993.
“We’re going to cooperate the best we can and if they’re not happy, I say we’ll see them in court,” Arpaio said.
And while it is too early to tell what impact the findings will have on voters, Arpaio can still count on the support of fellow Republicans, who said they see the investigation as a political witch hunt by a tyrannical Obama administration.
Democrats, who rallied at El Portal, a central Phoenix restaurant owned by County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, redoubled their calls for Arpaio to resign and criticized Republicans who are taking his side.
“Let the Republicans at the state Capitol make this a partisan issue,” said Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat. “If you read this report you’ll see it’s about public safety.”
Arpaio now has 60 days to reach a court-approved agreement with the DOJ. If not, the federal government will sue.
Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, who led the investigation, said an agreement will effectively have to be an overhaul of the Sheriff’s Office, including rewritten policies, retraining of deputies, and setting up a system so people can complain about the Sheriff’s Office.
“We will direct them on how they have to change that to make that work,” Austin said
Austin said there would also be a monitor who will work in the Sheriff’s Office to provide daily oversight.
Perez said he believes the culture of the Sheriff’s Office can be reformed, but it will take the will of the leadership.
Arpaio’s “own actions have helped nurture MCSO’s culture of bias,” according to a summary of the allegations that were sent in a letter to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who legally represents all county officials.
“Sheriff Arpaio has frequently distributed racially charged constituent letters, annotating the letters with handwritten notes that appear to endorse the content of the letter, circulating the letters to others on the command staff, and/or saving the letters in his personal file,” the letter read.
Arpaio has been on the forefront of the immigration debate since the middle of last decade and instituted “crime suppression” operations, or crime sweeps, as a signature enforcement tactic.
The sweeps involve saturated patrols in specific areas — usually with a high Latino population — for several days. Deputies typically make stops on the pretext of traffic violations and investigate the immigration status of the drivers.
Arpaio has vowed to continue to the sweeps in the face of loud opposition to them.
But it was the alleged illegal practices used in the sweeps and by the Human Smuggling Unit and the Criminal Employment Squad, that most of the findings were based.
The letter stated investigators interviewed Latinos who, “though legally present in the United States, were arrested or detained without cause as a consequence of these operations.”
The Human Smuggling Unit also stopped Latinos in high volumes for traffic violations, but rarely arrested human smugglers.
Investigators looked at all traffic-related incident reports from March 2006 to March 2009 and found roughly 20 percent contained information indicating the stops lacked reasonable suspicion or probable cause.
The Criminal Employment Squad’s job was to raid workplaces to look for illegal immigrants, and deputies would detain everyone at a worksite to check their employment status — even if the employee wasn’t listed on the warrant authorizing the raid.
When it came to treatment of Latino inmates who don’t speak English, detention officers would punish them for not speaking the language by putting them in solitary confinement or locking down their pods.
Officers would also refuse to accept forms completed in Spanish for service requests or grievances.
Perez also alleged that Arpaio and some of his commanders, including fired Chief Deputy David Hendershott, retaliated against people who spoke out against Arpaio and his immigration policies.
Perez cited highly publicized arrests of activists Salvador Reza and Randy Parraz as examples of the retaliation, as well as a federal racketeering suit in which Arpaio was the named plaintiff and complaints Hendershott filed against judges.
The racketeering suit alleged that five Maricopa County judges conspired with the Board of Supervisors to cover up criminal investigations of County Supervisor Don Stapley.
Perez said investigators are going to continue to look into allegations that deputies have used excessive force on Latinos and that the Sheriff’s Office has reduced its services to Latino communities.
It also will continue to probe whether there was bias of gender or national origin when Arpaio’s office failed to investigate 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation from 2004 to 2007.
The Department of Justice is also investigating Arpaio on allegations of abuse of power stemming from public corruption investigations of county leaders. Those corruption investigations were conducted with former Maricopa County Attorney Andy Thomas, who is facing disbarment charges for his role in them.