(Updates with sheriff’s comments from fourth paragraph.)
Dec. 15 (Bloomberg) -- An Arizona sheriff’s department with a reputation for being tough on crime discriminated against Latinos through a pattern of unlawful stops, arrests and biased jail practices, the U.S. Justice Department said.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office engaged in a “pattern and practice of violating the Constitution” and federal law, Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division, said today in a telephone news briefing. The continuing investigation also revealed “serious concerns” that Sheriff Joe Arpaio, 79, and deputies didn’t investigate crimes adequately or provide police protection to the Latino community.
“MCSO is broken in a number of critical respects,” Perez said, referring to the sheriff’s office. “The problems are deeply rooted in MCSO’s culture and are compounded by MCSO’s penchant for retaliation against individuals who speak out.”
Arpaio, a Republican first elected to the job in 1992, and top deputies said Perez’s statements were politically motivated and denied systemic problems in the office, based in Phoenix. Arpaio said he’d cooperate with federal officials while not changing police procedures, at news briefing later today.
“We are going to keep doing our jobs,” Arpaio said.
The U.S. Homeland Security Department ended its cooperation with the sheriff’s office today by terminating an agreement that helped screen jail inmates for immigration violations, citing the Justice Department’s findings.
“Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust,” Homeland Security Secretary and former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano said in a statement. Her agency “will not be a party to such practices,” she said.
Arpaio’s department covers the state’s biggest county by population, with 3.8 million residents. His methods -- which have included “crime suppression” sweeps in predominantly Latino areas in and around Phoenix -- have made him a hero to groups seeking a crackdown on illegal entrants to the U.S. and a target of advocates for immigrants’ rights.
Arizona has taken center stage in a national debate on enforcing federal law and the role of state and local authorities. The Supreme Court said this week it will review a 2010 Arizona law requiring local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. The statute, which led to a national boycott and became a model for Georgia, Alabama and other states, faces a Justice Department challenge. An earlier ruling kept key parts from taking effect.
The unrelated three-year civil-rights investigation of Arpaio’s office found that Hispanic drivers in Maricopa County are four to nine times more likely to be stopped, the Justice Department said. One expert told investigators that the cases represent “the most egregious racial profiling,” Perez said in a letter sent today to Bill Montgomery, the county prosecutor.
Sheriff’s deputies and detention officers “routinely” punish Latino inmates who speak little English for failing to understand commands and deny them “critical services” provided to others, Perez said in the letter.
People who oppose Arpaio’s policies have been arrested and jailed “for no reason” or forced to defend against “specious” civil complaints, Perez said on the call.
Investigators also found “troubling incidents” involving the excessive use of force, sexual-assault allegations that weren’t properly handled and a “failure to provide adequate” police services in Latino communities, Perez said.
The Justice Department will sue if Arpaio doesn’t take “clear steps” toward a voluntary compliance agreement within 60 days, Perez said on the call. In his letter to Montgomery, he asked for a response by Jan. 4.
“I’d much rather collaborate and solve the problem that way,” Perez said on the call. He said that the department may seek to cut off millions of dollars in federal funding to the sheriff’s office if changes aren’t made.
Arpaio, who repeatedly brought up an unrelated scandal involving the Justice Department’s handling of a gun-trafficking investigation known as “Fast and Furious” that put thousands of weapons into the hands of smugglers, told reporters that he didn’t believe changes were needed in his office.
“I’d be glad to see them in court,” he said of the federal agency.
The Justice Department made “false allegations,” said Jack MacIntyre, Arpaio’s deputy chief, who referred to the report as a “sneak attack” and a “witch hunt.” While there may have been mistakes by deputies, those don’t amount to a systemic problem, he said.
“I think it was a foregone conclusion what they were going to find, and they ended up finding it,” MacIntyre said at the briefing with Arpaio. The office was “targeted” by federal authorities to generate votes for Democrats next year, MacIntyre said. “That is the only purpose of it,” he said.
Initially, Arpaio refused to cooperate with the investigation, which began in June 2008, prompting the Justice Department to sue for access to relevant information and facilities in September 2010, Perez said in his letter.
The suit was settled in June after Arpaio agreed to give the department the access it sought. Investigators conducted 400 interviews of staff and jail inmates, toured facilities and reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, Perez said.
A separate criminal probe led by the U.S. Attorney for Arizona “remains ongoing,” Perez said. That investigation relates to claims that the sheriff used his office to target his political opponents, including other elected county officials.
In recent weeks, Arpaio has been criticized following reports that hundreds of sexual-assault cases weren’t thoroughly investigated or were botched by deputies. U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democrat, three Democratic state lawmakers and dozens of activists have called for Arpaio’s resignation.
The Justice Department is continuing to review the sex- assault cases, in which many of the victims may have been Hispanic, Perez said. Briefing reporters in Phoenix, Perez said he believed Arpaio’s policies had constructed a “wall of distrust” between deputies and the Latino community, leading to a “public-safety crisis.”
“It is clear to me that this community is divided and it is time to heal,” Perez said. “It is time to bring the community together around the shared vision of a department that is effective in reducing crime, respects the rule of law and enjoys the confidence of everyone.”
The letter from Perez is “a step in the right direction,” said Randy Parraz, president of Phoenix-based Citizens for a Better Arizona, a nonprofit advocacy group that led the successful recall in November of Arpaio ally and former Senate President Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican. It validates activists’ complaints about abuses and violations that have long been known to them, he said by telephone.
Parraz was arrested after a public meeting in 2008, and said that was an instance of retaliation by Arpaio.
“He needs to resign,” said Parraz. “He needs to step down for us to get a fresh start.”
Arpaio has announced plans to run for another term next year. As for resigning, “that is never going to happen,” he said today.
He said he was courted by several Republican presidential candidates seeking his endorsement, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. He backs Perry, the Texas governor.
“They called me because they appreciate what I am doing on the immigration problem and they want my support and ideas,” he said today.
Arpaio, a former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manager, has attracted media attention for his procedures since he took office as sheriff. He keeps jail inmates in tents, requires them to wear pink underwear and provides only two meals a day, according to the sheriff’s office website.
In summer months, temperatures in Phoenix often top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius).
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