The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil-rights investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after months of mounting complaints that deputies are discriminating in their enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Officials from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division notified Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Tuesday that they had begun the investigation, which will focus on whether deputies are engaging in “patterns or practices of discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures.”
Arpaio vehemently denies that deputies are illegally profiling as part of his immigration crackdowns. He said Tuesday that he welcomes the investigation and intends to cooperate fully.
Although Arpaio’s illegal-immigration crackdowns have broad public support, they also have led to calls for an examination of his tactics.
Last year, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon asked for a federal investigation of possible civil-rights abuses. Last month, four key Democratic members of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asked Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to investigate Arpaio.
The lawmakers said Arpaio had exceeded the limits of a federal program that gives local police federal immigration-enforcement powers by ordering deputies to “scour” Latino neighborhoods looking for illegal immigrants based on skin color.
Arpaio, who was easily re-elected to a fifth term in November, called the investigation politically motivated and vowed to continue to arrest illegal immigrants.
Arpaio uses the sweeps to enforce the state’s employer-sanctions and anti-smuggling laws. He also participates in a federal program that lets local officers enforce federal immigration laws. The sweeps have taken place in mostly Latino neighborhoods or near where day laborers congregate. They have sparked two racial-profiling lawsuits.
The Justice Department frequently receives racial-profiling complaints against police departments, but investigations are rare, said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor and racial-profiling expert.
Harris said this is the first civil-rights investigation stemming from immigration enforcement. The probe could last several months.
Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, the board’s lone Democrat and most vocal critic of Arpaio’s immigration policies, had planned to help deliver a petition today with 35,000 Internet signatures calling for a Justice Department investigation.