WASHINGTON – Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix-based department repeatedly arrested Latinos illegally, abused them in the county jails and failed to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults, the Justice Department charged Thursday after a three-year civil rights investigation.
Justice officials are expected to file suit in U.S. District Court in Arizona asking a federal judge to order changes in the department run by Arpaio, 79, who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” for his stance on illegal immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security, reacting to the Justice Department report, revoked Maricopa County jail officers’ authority to detain people on immigration charges, meaning they cannot continue to hold immigration violators who are not charged with local crimes.
The Arizona probe is one of 20 similar federal investigations under way nationwide by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. Many of the investigations began with requests from local police departments, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and others are under way in Seattle and Portland, Ore. Federal prosecutors in New Orleans have obtained criminal convictions and prison sentences against several police officials for brutality in the days after the hurricane.
Perez, in a letter of warning Thursday to Maricopa County officials, said “deputies, detention officers, supervisory staff and command staff, including Sheriff Arpaio, have engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos.”
He described Latinos arrested on unreasonable traffic stops, businesses raided when Latinos gather out front, inmates mocked with racial epithets, and 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation, often involving Latinos, that “were not properly investigated over a three-year period.”
One Latino was intentionally hit by a patrol car and dragged, with instructions for other deputies to “leave him there,” prosecutors said. A Latino motorist was incarcerated for 13 days for not using his turn signal.
Prosecutors say the abuse begins with deputies targeting Latino drivers, who it said were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than whites, and asserted that officers “treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented.”
The findings set the stage for a faceoff with the often abrasive sheriff.
Perez warned that if Arpaio was not interested in making drastic changes, “we are prepared to file a civil action to compel compliance.” That lawsuit would ask a federal judge to force Maricopa County “to address the violations of the Constitution and federal law.”
Arpaio said at a televised news conference in Arizona that he would try to cooperate, but that “if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.”
He criticized the Justice Department findings as “a sad day for America as a whole,” and said that federal government intervention into his sheriff’s office would only lead to the release of jail inmates being held on immigration charges after committing previous offenses. Inmates could be transferred to federally controlled facilities instead, however.
“Don’t come here and use me as a whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said. “We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration.”
Arpaio was first elected sheriff in 1992 and has remained a popular figure, particularly among conservative illegal immigration hawks.