Arizona’s Maricopa County and its sheriff were accused by the U.S. Justice Department of discriminating against Latinos in a lawsuit that prompted Sheriff Joseph Arpaio to accuse the Obama administration of targeting him in an election-year maneuver.
The sheriff’s office, according to the complaint filed yesterday in federal court in Phoenix, denies constitutional protections to Latino prisoners who have limited English language skills. The U.S. also alleges in the complaint that the sheriff’s department has retaliated against perceived critics with “baseless criminal actions, unfounded civil lawsuits or meritless administrative actions.”
The alleged discrimination “is the product of a culture of disregard for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
Arpaio, who has been elected five times and served 20 years in office, said President Barack Obama is going after him to court Latino voters.
“They know this is political and they know this has to do with the president of the United States,” he said yesterday at a news conference in Phoenix.
Arpaio called the timing of the case “highly suspect” in light of the coming presidential election, in which the Latino vote may play a critical role, and the Supreme Court’s consideration of Arizona’s immigration law, which was argued on April 25.
“It is a national issue,” he said. “I am the poster boy. They are using me.”
Justice Department representatives didn’t immediately return a call after regular business hours seeking comment on the sheriff’s allegations.
Anna O’Leary, an assistant professor in the Mexican- American Studies Department at the University of Arizona (9193MF:US), said she doesn’t believe the Obama administration is playing politics with the lawsuit. Latinos and others who feel targeted by Arpaio and other Arizona leaders believe the scrutiny from the federal government is long overdue, she said in a phone interview.
Arpaio “says that to try to find some sympathy for himself, but people who have lived here and seen those injustices gone by without addressing, for people who have felt victimized by him, people like that are really welcoming any government investigation of what is happening here,” O’Leary said.
Still, the dispute could help Obama with Latino voters, O’Leary said. It could also help Arpaio, who is up for re- election in November, to motivate his base, she said.
Sheriff’s office jail employees frequently refer to Latinos using slurs such as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” and “stupid Mexicans,” according to the Justice Department’s complaint. Supervisors in immigration enforcement show anti- Latino bias, including sending around an e-mail of a Chihuahua dressed in swimming gear with a caption that read, “a rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal,” according to the complaint.
The Justice Department said in December that the sheriff’s office discriminated against Latinos with unlawful stops, arrests and biased jail practices. An inquiry revealed “serious concerns” that Arpaio didn’t investigate crimes adequately or provide police protection to the Latino community, Justice Department officials said.
Joe Popolizio, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said at a news conference in Phoenix that the Justice Department has refused to provide information to support its findings.
“We have repeatedly asked for the factual basis of those findings,” he said. Popolizio said a lawsuit will require the Justice Department to share those records and name witnesses.
The Justice Department sent letters to Arpaio and his department May 9 warning them to expect a lawsuit after they refused to negotiate a consent agreement. The lawsuit seeks court-ordered relief ensuring that Arpaio and his department implement policies and procedures to prevent the conduct alleged in the complaint.
“Though we provided the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office with a draft agreement and were prepared to negotiate it, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office made the decision to cancel negotiations,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez said in the letters to Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney William Montgomery in Phoenix.
The negotiations failed because the sheriff’s department wouldn’t agree to an independent monitor, Perez said yesterday in a conference call with reporters.
Popolizio said that would be “usurping the power of the sheriff.”
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.
Arpaio accused the Justice Department of working with Latino activists who want him out of office. He said he believes the investigation that led to the lawsuit began under Obama, not under President George W. Bush, as he said the Justice Department contends.
This is the second time the Justice Department has sued a police department in this type of civil rights case, Perez said. The earlier case involved the police department in Columbus, Ohio, which ultimately settled the case, he said.
“At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case involving a sheriff and sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics,” Perez said.
The Justice Department said in its complaint that in 2006, Arpaio decided to turn the sheriff’s office into “a full- fledged anti-illegal immigration agency.”
Latino drivers and passengers are unlawfully detained to determine their immigration status when there is no legal basis to hold them, the Justice Department said. In some parts of the county, Latino drivers are almost nine times more likely to be stopped by sheriff officers than non-Latino drivers engaged in similar conduct, according to the complaint.
John Masterson, a lawyer for the sheriff’s office, said at yesterday’s news conference that the facts weren’t there to support the Justice Department’s allegations.
“We will defend this litigation aggressively and we will seek the information from DOJ that they have refused to provide,” Masterson said. “They don’t have anything that supports systematic constitutional violations.”
The case is U.S. v. Maricopa County, 12-00981, U.S. District Court, District of Arizona (Phoenix).
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