Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "America's toughest lawman," was accused Thursday in a scathing Justice Department report of violating federal law and the Constitution in his department's handling of Hispanics it arrested and held in its jail system.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the department's Civil Rights Division, said a three-year civil investigation found that the Phoenix sheriff and his deputies engaged in unconstitutional conduct and violations of federal law that jeopardized the sheriff's "commitment to fair and effective" law enforcement.
Sheriff Arpaio bitterly attacked the report during a late afternoon news conference Thursday, calling it a politically motivated assault by the Obama administration that will make Arizona unsafe by taking away his authority to keep illegal immigrants off the street.
"Don't come here and use me as the whipping boy for a national and international problem," he said.
The report resulted in a decision by the Department of Homeland Security to strip Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies of their authority to determine whether inmates in county jails are in the country illegally and restricted the agency's use of a federal fingerprint program to identify illegal immigrants.
"We are going to cooperate the best we can. And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court," said the sheriff, who has until Jan. 4 to determine whether he will work out an agreement with the federal government to make changes or face a lawsuit and the loss of federal funds.
The not-unexpected Justice Department report said investigators documented discriminatory policing practices including unlawful stops, detentions and arrests of Hispanics; unlawful retaliation against people exercising their First Amendment right to criticize the agency's policies or practices, including its discriminatory treatment of Hispanics; and discriminatory jail practices against inmates with limited English proficiency by punishing them and denying them critical services.
Mr. Perez said investigators found a number of "long-standing and entrenched systemic deficiencies" that caused or contributed to patterns of unlawful conduct, including a failure to implement policies guiding deputies on lawful policing practices; allowing specialized units to engage in unconstitutional practices; inadequate training and supervision; an ineffective disciplinary, oversight and accountability system; and a lack of sufficient external oversight and accountability.
In addition, he said, the investigation documented the use of excessive force; police practices that have the effect of significantly compromising the agency's ability to adequately protect Hispanic residents; and a failure to adequately investigate sexual-abuse cases involving illegal-immigrant victims and perpetrators.
While no formal findings of pattern or practice violations have been made, Mr. Perez said, the investigation remains ongoing. He added that the accusations were brought after Civil Division investigators "peeled the onion to its core."
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's "systematic disregard for basic constitutional protections has created a wall of distrust between the sheriff's office and large segments of the community, which dramatically compromises the ability to protect and serve the people," he said. "The problems are deeply rooted in [the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office] culture, and are compounded by MCSO's penchant for retaliation against individuals who speak out."
A separate federal grand jury investigation of the sheriff's office is continuing.
In a Thursday afternoon press conference in Phoenix, an unusually animated Sheriff Arpaio called the report "a sad day for America as a whole."
He denounced the Obama administration as putting a greater priority on going after law enforcement than securing the border with Mexico, suggesting that "by their actions today, President Obama and a band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink neon sign at the Arizona-Mexico border saying, 'Welcome all illegals to your United States. Our home is your home.'"
Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said she was "troubled" by the findings of the Justice Department investigation, adding that "discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust."
"DHS will not be a party to such practices. Accordingly, and effective immediately, DHS is terminating MCSO's 287(g) jail model agreement and is restricting the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office access to the Secure Communities program," said Ms. Napolitano, a former Arizona governor.
"DHS will utilize federal resources for the purpose of identifying and detaining those individuals who meet U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement's immigration-enforcement priorities," she said.
Ms. Napolitano said the department will continue to enforce federal immigration laws in Maricopa County "in smart, effective ways that focus our resources on criminal aliens, recent border crossers, repeat and egregious immigration-law violators, and employers who knowingly hire illegal labor."
Sheriff Arpaio said that cancellation would result in large numbers of illegal immigrants being released and "dumped on a street near you."
"For that, you can thank the federal government," he said.
He also said the accusations were a foregone conclusion made in bad faith, noting that during one notorious crime sweep, "top homeland security people were there, and they commended us on our professionalism during that crime-sweep operation."
Justice Department attorneys, investigators and experts conducted interviews with more than 400 people, including 75 current and former MCSO supervisors and deputies, along with Sheriff Arpaio, and 150 former and current MCSO inmates. In addition, the department reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
Many of the interviews and much of the review was delayed when MCSO refused to provide required documents and access. The sheriff's office provided the required access and documents after the department filed a lawsuit.
Mr. Perez said the Justice Department will seek to obtain a court-enforceable agreement and will attempt to work with MCSO and Maricopa County officials to develop and implement a comprehensive reform plan with the judicial oversight needed to address the violations of the Constitution and federal law.
"Effective policing and constitutional policing go hand in hand. Developing and implementing meaningful reforms will assist in reducing crime, ensuring respect for the Constitution, and ensuring that the people of Maricopa County have confidence in MCSO's commitment to fair and effective law enforcement," he said. "We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if MCSO chooses a different course of action."
The investigation began in June 2008, near the end of the Bush administration, by career Justice Department officials.
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