The U.S. Department of Justice this morning has accused the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of racial profiling in traffic stops and immigration operations and discriminating against Spanish speakers in the county jails.
The Justice Department issued an ultimatum: come to a voluntary court-enforceable agreement to stop the unconstitutional practices, or face a lawsuit under provisions of federal Civil Rights Act.
The Sheriff’s Office has until Jan. 4 to decide whether to voluntarily cooperate with federal officials. If so, the Justice Department will work with Sheriff Joe Arpaio to correct violations in the next 60 days. If the sheriff declines to cooperate or fails to reach agreement, the Justice Department said it would file a civil action to force compliance with federal law.
This comes after a 3 ½-year investigation into the Sheriff’s Office, one that the agency chiefs initially resisted by refusing to turn over documents or allow federal investigators into county jails until they were sued by the Department of Justice in September 2010. Nonetheless, federal investigators reviewed thousands of pages of documents, and conducted more than 200 interviews with sheriff’s personnel and former jail inmates.
Arpaio and his attorneys were notified this morning of the findings. A letter from Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez detailed systemic discriminatory practices and policies and steps that must be taken to avoid further legal action.
According to Perez’s letter, investigators accused Arpaio and his staff of a widespread pattern or practice of discriminating against Latinos. That treatment, he wrote, flows from the top echelons of the Sheriff’s Office and has compromised its ability to provide quality law enforcement to county residents.
Investigators believe the Sheriff’s Office followed a pattern or practice of unconstitutional treatment of Hispanics both inside the jails and in traffic stops, especially by the Sheriff’s human smuggling and work-site enforcement units.
Among the alleged Civil Rights violations:
Hispanics were routinely targeted for traffic stops without reasonable cause, and subsequently charged with immigration-related crimes. Legal residents were sometimes treated as if they were illegal immigrants and even jailed.
Latino inmates with poor or no English proficiency were frequently punished for not understanding English, were required to fill out forms in a language they did not understand or were denied critical services available to English-speaking inmates.
Community activists and critics who spoke out against the Sheriff’s Office’s treatment of Hispanics were themselves targeted for retaliation.
The Justice Department also found that the Sheriff’s Office did not adequately train or supervise its personnel to avoid civil rights violations and, in fact, permitted the specialized units to engage in unconstitutional behavior.
Also, the department found three additional areas of concern that require further review. Investigators allege some sheriff’s deputies use excessive force against Latinos; the agency’s immigration enforcement programs have caused distrust within the Latino community; and that certain types of criminal cases have been improperly investigated.
The department has asked the Sheriff’s Office to voluntarily come to a court-approved and legally enforceable agreement to rectify the unconstitutional practices and reform office policies.
The Justice Department began its civil rights investigation of the Sheriff’s Office in 2008 and publicly disclosed the probe in March 2009 after months of complaints alleging that sheriff’s deputies targeted Latino residents.
The probe was stalled for 18 months after sheriff’s officials refused to turn over records to investigators and provide access to facilities and staff.
Federal officials filed an unprecedented suit against Arpaio in September 2010, claiming the Sheriff’s Office was violating federal law by refusing to cooperate with the investigation. The lawsuit threatened to withhold millions of dollars in federal funding from Maricopa County if Arpaio did not turn over extensive records related to booking procedures, inmate language and interpretation services, arrests, and to allow access to personnel and jails.
Within weeks of the Justice Department’s lawsuit, accusations of mismanagement forced Arpaio to place three top aides on administrative leave, among them former Chief Deputy David Hendershott. Until then, Hendershott had spearheaded the sheriff’s response to federal investigators’ requests.
The change in top administrators brought a change in attorneys, and Arpaio’s agency began releasing documents to federal investigators. The lawsuit over the records was subsequently dismissed earlier this year.
The federal investigation continued, however.
Arpaio and his administrators have consistently denied that the office’s ongoing immigration-enforcement measures target Latino residents. Throughout the investigation, Arpaio continued his immigration enforcement tactics. Just last week, his office conducted a raid at a Chandler restaurant.
The federal civil-rights probe is unrelated to a separate Justice Department criminal investigation into abuse of power by the Sheriff’s Office and the County Attorney’s Office under former County Attorney Andrew Thomas.
That investigation continues, and is connected to long-running disputes among county politicians, administrators and the judiciary.
The Department of Justice ultimatum comes at a time when multiple issues regarding Arpaio and Arizona immigration policy are converging. Within the last two weeks, activists and some politicians have been demanding Arpaio’s resignation or removal because of more than 400 sex-crime cases that were inadequately investigated by Sheriff’s detectives.
Perez’s letter said the Justice Department has expanded its civil-rights investigation to encompass a review of whether Arpaio failed to properly investigate those sex crimes cases.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Arizona’s immigration law, which Arpaio has defended.