May 11, 2012 in Nation/World

Justice Department sues sheriff over civil rights

Jacques Billeaud Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Sheriff Joe Arpaio pounds his fist as he answers questions regarding the civil lawsuit Thursday in Phoenix.
(Full-size photo)

PHOENIX – As defiant as ever, get-tough Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces a federal court showdown over charges that deputies on his trademark immigration patrols racially profiled Latinos in violation of civil rights law.

After months of negotiations failed to reach a settlement over the allegations, the U.S. Justice Department took the rare step Thursday of suing.

“We have invariably been able to work collaboratively with law enforcement agencies to build better departments and safer communities,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said.

Arpaio and his department “have been a glaring exception,” said Perez, who heads the civil rights division.

The main issue that caused talks to break down last month was federal officials’ insistence that Arpaio agree to a court-appointed monitor for the department. Arpaio objected, saying it would undermine his authority.

“I am not going to surrender my office to the federal government,” a visibly angry Arpaio said at an afternoon news conference. “I will fight this to the bitter end.”

The lawsuit means that a federal judge will decide the escalating, long-standing dispute.

The Justice Department, which had been investigating Arpaio on civil rights allegations for more than three years and faced a similar impasse earlier in the investigation, said it was left with no choice but to sue the sheriff to seek the court-appointed monitor for his agency.

The DOJ had filed another lawsuit against Arpaio that alleged his office refused to cooperate fully with a request for records and access to jails and employees. It was settled last summer after the office complied.

The latest lawsuit comes as part of the DOJ’s effort to enforce a law passed after the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case and the ensuing Los Angeles riots. It bans police from systematically violating constitutional rights.

The DOJ first leveled the allegations against Arpaio in December, saying a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights prevailed at his office, which covers the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Arpaio’s office is accused of punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish, and launching some patrols based on complaints that never reported a crime but conveyed concerns about dark-skinned people congregating or speaking Spanish.

The DOJ has been trying to require Arpaio’s office to train officers in how to make constitutional traffic stops, collect data on people arrested in traffic stops and assure Latinos that the department is there to protect them.

Arpaio said the Obama administration brought the lawsuit as a way to court Latino voters in a presidential election year. “They want to send a message that they are taking on the sheriff,” Arpaio said.

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