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America’s Toughest Sheriff Still Defiant, Says DOJ Probe “Political”

After the Justice Department charged that Joe Arpaio — who likes to call himself America’s toughest sheriff — discriminated against Latinos and punished those who complained, the cop whose defiance of the Feds became his mantra reacted true to form: he again defied the Feds by labeling the charges “political.”

In a sharply-worded rebuke following a three-year investigation, the Department of Justice said in a letter that the office headed by the larger-than-life sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona (Phoenix) showed “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” that included “the highest levels of the agency.” The letter also noted that, earlier in its investigation, Arpaio had refused to cooperate and forced the DOJ to sue him, obliging Arpaio and his deputies to cooperate.

The 22-page letter, signed by Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, is addressed to the Maricopa County Attorney. If Arpaio and his office refused to enter into a court-approved settlement agreement, the government would file a lawsuit to compel compliance.

The letter is also seen as the opening salvo of a legal war against Arpaio and his methods. The DOJ is currently conducting a separate federal grand jury investigation into allegations of abuse of power by the department’s public corruption department and for denying the civil rights of those they apprehend or imprison.

Adding yet more weight to the DOJ letter, Arpaio – who has been reelected to his post four times – is up for reelection in 2014. Some observers believe that the growth of the County’s Latino population, and its increasing political sophistication, could spell trouble for the 79-year-old lawman.

The DOJ said the allegations its letter were based on interviewing more than 400 inmates, deputies and others, including Arpaio and his senior deputies, visiting the jail, and reading internal documents numbering into the thousands of pages.

The investigation concluded that Latinos in Maricopa County were receiving “second-class policing services” and that a “culture of bias” exists in Arpaio’s office. At a news briefing, the DOJ spokesman said, “We have to do cultural change and culture change starts with people at the top.”

In a related development, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano – a former governor of Arizona — announced that, as a result of the DOJ’s findings, the federal government would no longer allow Arpaio’s deputies to use the DHS database to check the immigration status of inmates in their custody.

Arpaio’s office has participated in several DHS programs, including one known as 287(g), which empowers local law enforcement officers to enforce Federal immigration law. That program has been widely criticized on a number of grounds, including the local police or sheriff’s lack of experience enforcing complex immigration law. Because of the DOJ investigation, his participation in this program was terminated by the DHS.

The DHS also limited the sheriff’s office’s access to the database it uses for another of its more controversial programs, known as Secure Communities. This program allows local law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of people it has in custody and to notify the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), which handles deportation proceedings. The program was designed to identify serious criminals in the US illegally and has been heavily criticized for identifying for deportation people arrested for committing minor crimes, such as speeding or driving with a broken taillight.

The DHS said in a statement, “The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is troubled by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) findings of discriminatory policing practices within the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). 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.

“This is a sad day for America as a whole,” Sheriff Arpaio told The New York Times. “We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration,” he said, adding that he is merely following the law.

But the DOJ investigation found mountains of evidence that the sheriff’s office were practicing the most egregious forms of racial profiling in targeting Latinos.

Their letter said “The absence of clear policies and procedures to ensure effective and constitutional policing, along with the deviations from widely accepted policing and correctional practices, and the failure to implement meaningful oversight and accountability structures, have contributed to a chronic culture of disregard for basic legal and constitutional obligations.”

The DOJ said that a substantial percentage of the incident reports filed after traffic-related stops suggest that these stops may have violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

The report also noted that Sheriff Arpaio had conducted numerous raids targeting illegal immigrants. These raids were highly publicized and were sometimes prompted by complaints simply 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.

Sheriff Arpaio has become the darling of Republican candidates for the presidency. He has had visits from Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, and Herman Cain, who has since dropped out of the race. Arpaio has endorsed Governor Perry.

Arpaio has won reelection four times by hefty margins. But in recent months, his popularity appears to have somewhat declined due to allegations that his department misappropriated county funds and failed to adequately investigate more than 400 sexual-abuse cases, where many of the complainants were illegal immigrants.

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Arizona filed a lawsuit challenging the illegal arrest and detention of a U.S. citizen and a legal resident by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) deputies. It is described below as fairly typical of the tactics used by Arpaio’s officers. It was written by the lawyers for two men who were driving down a public roadway when they were stopped and arrested without justification, and transported to the site of an immigration raid.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona on behalf of Julian Mora, a legal permanent resident who has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, and his son Julio Mora, a US citizen, against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County. The lawsuit charges that the MCSO deputies racially profiled the father and son as they drove their pickup truck on a busy public road and illegally arrested and detained them, violating the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law and prohibition on unreasonable seizures.

Julian Mora was driving to work when, without provocation, an MCSO vehicle cut in front of him forcing him to stop abruptly. MCSO deputies then ordered the father and son out of their vehicle, then frisked and handcuffed them. Although the deputies had no reason to believe that the Moras had broken any law or were in the country unlawfully, they transported the Moras to Handyman Maintenance, Inc. (HMI), where MCSO was conducting a raid that morning. For the next three hours, the Moras were held in handcuffs at HMI, where they were denied food and water and forbidden contact with the outside world. They were not released until they were interrogated.

The ordeal was particularly humiliating for 66-year-old Julian Mora who, due to his diabetic condition, has difficulty controlling his bladder and had an urgent need to use the bathroom. MCSO personnel, however, rejected his repeated requests. Eventually, deputies escorted him outside where he was made to urinate in the parking lot. MCSO personnel later mocked his son Julio when he had to use the bathroom, because he had difficulty going with his hands still cuffed.

“To this day, I don’t know why the officers stopped us out of all the cars on the road,” said 19-year-old Julio Mora. “We were treated like criminals and never told why. I was very scared. I never thought something like this would happen to me. Now I know it can happen to anyone, citizens too. I don’t think it’s fair.”

The federal lawsuit was settled when Arpaio’s lawyer agreed to a $200,000 payout to the Moras.

There are more than a thousand other lawsuits pending against Arpaio and his office. Many of these types of suits have been settled out of court, limiting the availability of details. But the cost of the settlements to the County are substantial.

The DOJ investigation has focused on the Sheriff’s office (MCSO’s) compliance with the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, 42 U.S.C. § 14141 (“Section 14141”), and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,42 U.S.C. §§ 2000d to 2000d-7 and its implementing regulations at 28 C.F.R. § 42.101 et seq. (“Title VI”). Section 14141 prohibits law enforcement agencies, such as MCSO, from engaging in activities that amount to a pattern or practice of violating the Constitution or laws of the United States.

Title VI and its implementing regulations provide that recipients of federal financial assistance, such as MCSO, may not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin. These laws give the United States the authority to file legal action and obtain the necessary relief to ensure compliance with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.