The Justice Department, which first targeted Sheriff Joe Arpaio four years ago in his suspected mishandling of illegal immigrants arrested in the Phoenix area, filed a civil lawsuit in federal court Thursday accusing the sheriff and his office using “unconstitutional and unlawful actions” in their handling of Hispanics.
The complaint alleges that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) and Sheriff Arpaio, the nation’s so-called toughest sheriff, engaged in and continue to engage in a pattern or practice of:
• Discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional law enforcement actions against Latinos who are frequently stopped, detained and arrested on the basis of race, color or national origin;
• Discriminatory jail practices against Latino inmates with limited English skills;
• Illegal retaliation against their perceived critics, subjecting them to baseless criminal actions, unfounded civil lawsuits or meritless administrative actions.
The lawsuit comes in the wake of a breakdown of negotiations between the department and the sheriff’s office over the appointment of a court monitor, who would oversee the office’s handling of those it arrests and detains, and direct operations regarding its enforcement programs and actions.
A “notice of intent to file civil action” came Wednesday from Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez in a letter.
Sheriff Arpaio said a series of meetings between representatives of his office and the Justice Department were scheduled to begin this week to discuss ways to resolve allegations of racial profiling by his office, but Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, a top litigator in the department’s Civil Rights Division, issued an ultimatum instead: It was absolutely mandatory for the sheriff’s office to agree to an outside monitor otherwise there was no reason for further meetings.
The sheriff said the appointment of an outside monitor “essentially usurps the powers and duties of an elected sheriff” and transfers them to a person or group of persons selected by the federal government.
“Every policy decision, every operation, every new program in the jails and in enforcement, virtually everything would have to be approved by the monitor, nullifying the authority of the elected sheriff and eviscerating the will of the citizens of Maricopa County,” he said.
“I am the constitutionally and legitimately elected sheriff and I absolutely refuse to surrender my responsibility to the federal government,” he said. “And so to the Obama administration, who is attempting to strong arm me into submission only for its political gain, I say, ‘This will not happen, not on my watch.’”
The sheriff’s attorney, Jack MacIntyre, called a federal monitor the “most extreme proposal,” particularly in light of the fact that the federal government has refused to provide any details or proof as to how it came to the conclusion that Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office employees engage in patterns and practices of racial profiling.
“We have never agreed to a monitor replacing the duly elected sheriff,” he said. “We have always been open to negotiating these issues raised by the DOJ, but never the appointment of a monitor.”
The Justice Department has maintained that the sheriff’s office “negotiated in bad faith” and, as a result, put the settlement talks in jeopardy. It told Mr. MacIntyre in a letter Tuesday the sheriff’s precondition of not having a court-appointed monitor to help enforce an agreement to settle the civil rights allegations would result in the cancellation of negotiations.
“We believe you are wasting time and not negotiating in good faith,” wrote Mr. Austin, questioning whether the sheriff’s office was ever interested in settling the matter. “Your tactics have required DOJ to squander valuable time and resources.”
In December, in a scathing report, the Justice Department accused the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of violating federal law and the Constitution in the handling of Hispanics it arrested and held in its jail system. Mr. Perez at the time said a three-year civil investigation found that the 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.
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.
While no formal findings of pattern or practice violations have been made, Mr. Perez said, the investigation remains ongoing. A separate federal grand jury investigation of the sheriff’s office is continuing.
An unusually animated Sheriff Arpaio called the report “a sad day for America as a whole” and, at the time, denounced the Obama administration as putting a greater priority on going after law enforcement than securing the border with Mexico.
The sheriff also said the accusations were a foregone conclusion made in bad faith, noting that during one crime sweep by his deputies, “top Homeland Security people were there, and they commended us on our professionalism.
“Don’t come here and use me as the whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said.