Marc Lacey, New York Times, December 15, 2011
In a harshly worded critique of the country’s best-known sheriff, the Justice Department has accused Joe Arpaio of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of engaging in “unconstitutional policing” by unfairly targeting Latinos for detentions and arrests and retaliating against those who complain.
After an investigation that lasted more than three years, the civil rights division of the Justice Department said in a 22-page report that the sheriff’s office has “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” that “reaches the highest levels of the agency.” The department interfered with the inquiry, the government said, prompting a lawsuit that eventually led Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies to cooperate.
“We have peeled the onion to its core,” said Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, noting during a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning that more than 400 inmates, deputies and others has been interviewed as part of the review, including Sheriff Arpaio and his command staff. Mr. Perez said the inquiry, which included jail visits and reviews of thousands of pages of internal documents, raised the question of whether Latinos were receiving “second-class policing services” in Maricopa County.
Mr. Perez said he hoped Sheriff Arpaio would cooperate with the federal government in turning the department around. Should he refuse, Mr. Perez said, the government will file a lawsuit and the department could lose millions of dollars in federal money.
Sheriff Arpaio was singled out for criticism in the report, which said that he had distributed racially charged letters he had received and that he helped nurture the department’s “culture of bias.”
The inquiry’s findings, which Sheriff Arpaio is sure to contest, paint a picture of a department staffed by poorly trained deputies who target Latino drivers on the roadways and detain innocent Latinos in the community in their searches for illegal immigrants. The mistreatment, the government said, extends to the jails the department oversees, where Latino inmates who do not speak English are mistreated.
The report said Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped in the sprawling county, which includes Phoenix and its environs, than non-Latino drivers. The expert who conducted the study called it the most egregious racial profiling he has ever seen in this country, said Mr. Perez, the prosecutor.
The report also suggested that Sheriff Arpaio’s well-publicized raids aimed at arresting illegal immigrants were sometimes prompted by complaints that described no criminal activity but referred to people with “dark skin” or to Spanish speakers congregating in an area. “The use of these types of bias-infected indicators as a basis for conducting enforcement activity contributes to the high number of stops and detentions lacking in legal justification,” the report said.
After Mr. Arpaio received a letter complaining that employees of a McDonald’s in Sun City, a retirement community, did not speak English, the sheriff forwarded the letter to a top aide, who mounted an immigration raid in the area.