Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crackdown on illegal immigrants could get greater scrutiny from federal investigators under President-elect Barack Obama’s administration, criminal-justice experts say.
A telltale clue to that possibility is Obama’s top choice to head the U.S. Justice Department, Eric Holder, who has a track record of investigating the kind of racial-profiling allegations leveled at Arpaio’s crime and immigration sweeps.
Arpaio denies his deputies have stopped or arrested people based on race.
As deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration, Holder played a key role in the Justice Department’s investigation of the New Jersey state police in the late 1990s that showed officers were disproportionately stopping Blacks for minor traffic stops to look for drugs.
During a Senate subcommittee hearing involving the investigation, Holder, who is an African-American and the son of an immigrant from Barbados, said he had become particularly sensitive to complaints of racial profiling after New Jersey police searched his trunk for guns when he was a college student. He said he believed the incident stemmed from racial profiling.
The Justice Department’s investigation led to New Jersey state police signing a consent decree that required officers to fully document all traffic stops as part of an effort to ensure they weren’t stopping motorists on the basis of race.
The department’s civil-rights division under Democratic President Clinton launched several investigations of local police departments accused of using racial profiling. Such investigations fell dormant under Republican President Bush’s administration.
In April, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey asking that the Justice Department’s civil-rights division and the FBI investigate Arpaio’s immigration crackdowns. He alleged that the sweeps included “a pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests.”
An Arizona Republic examination of arrest logs from eight crime sweeps showed that deputies arrested more Latinos than non-Latinos during each of the operations; that even when the patrols were held in mostly White areas deputies arrested more Latinos than non-Latinos; and that deputies arrested Latinos in greater numbers than non-Latinos following minor traffic violations.
Gordon said he believes that under the Obama administration, the Justice Department will take a harder look at the concerns raised in his letter.