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'Abuse of power' at core of lawsuit against Arizona Sheriff Arpaio

By Valeria Fernández New America Media | Last updated: May 21, 2012 - 10:32:13 AM

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Photo: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio
PHOENIX - Latino activists in Arizona lauded the news that the Department of Justice was filing a federal lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for alleged civil rights violations.

The suit, filed May 10 in federal court, is the latest chapter in a four-year-long investigation that began after Sheriff Joe Arpaio started conducting immigration sweeps in Latino communities, raising allegations of racial profiling and discrimination. “The wheels of justice move slow, but they are still moving. In this case our community has been waiting close to four years for today,” said Daniel Ortega, a civil rights attorney and chairman of the board of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). “The racial profiling continues in this community despite of what the Department of Justice has done.”

But some activists say the lawsuit is not enough.

“What we’re asking is for the Justice Department to continue and indict Arpaio on the criminal charges they are investigating for abuse,” said Salvador Reza, an activist from Tonatierra whose case is mentioned in the lawsuit as a victim of alleged retaliation.

The federal lawsuit comes as negotiations broke down with the Sheriff’s office over the DOJ’s requirement to impose a monitor of the law-enforcement agency, after the Justice Department released a scathing report in December.

The findings alleged that sheriff deputies engaged in a “pattern and practice” of civil rights violations, including racial profiling during traffic stops, discrimination against Latino inmates in county jails, and acts of retaliation against those who criticized Sheriff Arpaio.

But the DOJ findings went beyond issues affecting the Latino community.

“At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff, and a sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution,” explained Mr. Perez.

It’s unclear how these allegations could affect the ongoing separate criminal investigation into Sheriff Arpaio’s alleged abuse of power. The complaint lists a number of critics of the Maricopa County sheriff—not all of them Latino—who were allegedly subjected to acts of retaliation by Sheriff Arpaio and former Maricopa County prosecutor Andrew Thomas.

The Arizona State Bar recently disbarred Mr. Thomas in connection to his activities in the Maricopa County Anti-Corruption Unit (MACE), which he founded with Sheriff Arpaio. The bar claims that Sheriff Arpaio, Mr. Thomas and others engaged in “a concerted effort to wrestle power” against the Board of Supervisors, judges and county officials to “instill fear in the hearts of those who would resist.”

“Nobody is above the law, and nobody can misuse the legal process to silence those with different opinions,” said Mr. Perez.

No other choice

This lawsuit is only the second time in U.S. history that the DOJ has brought suit against a law enforcement agency. Normally, the Justice Department is able to come to an agreement with agencies to fix any problems. That’s what happened in 1997, when the DOJ reached an agreement the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in connection with mistreatment in county jails. Mr. Perez said that this time around they wanted to ensure they’d have a monitor to avoid repeating history.

“I can’t think of any other choice the federal government could take than file this lawsuit,” said Antonio Bustamente, attorney and pro-immigrant activist.

The lawsuit addresses allegations of racial profiling against the Latino community.

According to Mr. Perez, Sheriff Arpaio wasn’t only responsible for these abuses; he was also responsible for a culture that “promotes and is indifferent to the discriminatory conduct of its law enforcement officers” and has “virtually non-existent accountability measures.”

The lawsuit describes employees of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office as frequently using derogatory comments to refer to Mexicans like: “wetbacks” and “Mexican b-t-h-s.”

Some of these allegations resonate with claims brought by another suit that is still pending against Sheriff Arpaio, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).

The racial-profiling lawsuit is now reaching its litigation stage and will go to court on July 19.

The federal court will have to make a determination of whether or not the DOJ lawsuit relates to the suit filed by the civil rights organizations and, if so, it could be assigned to judge Murray Snow, who is handling the other lawsuit. That means that both cases potentially could be consolidated into one, according to Mr. Perez.

Funding at stake

Maricopa County is now facing the burden of expensive litigation to fight the lawsuits. Even more worrisome for the sheriff’s office is the possibility that it could risk losing funding if it is found to have violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, explained Mary Rose Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor.

One of the conditions it must meet in order to receive funding is to comply with the title guidelines, which prohibit “intentional discrimination on the grounds of race, color or national origin.”

Joseph Popolizio, an attorney representing the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, said the Justice Department didn’t simply want to have a monitor supervise the agency but was opening the door in many instances for the DOJ itself to have veto power over the sheriff’s decisions.

“I’m not going to surrender my office to the federal government,” said Sheriff Arpaio during a press conference. “I will fight this to the bitter end.”

The day before the lawsuit was filed, Sheriff Arpaio released a 17-page document with new guidelines to improve the relationship between his agency and the Latino community.

But activists like Mr. Perez see the document as “an admission of the existence of a problem … not a substitute for meaningful reform.”

During a press conference, Sheriff Arpaio called the DOJ lawsuit politically motivated, saying it was simply an attempt to attract the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential election.

It remains to be seen whether the new lawsuit will have an impact on voters in Maricopa County when they go to the polls in November to choose a sheriff.