By Richard A. Serrano and Ashley Powers, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Phoenix-based department repeatedly arrested Latinos illegally, abused them in the county jails and failed to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults, the Justice Department charged Thursday after a three-year civil rights investigation.
Justice officials are expected to file suit in U.S. District Court in Arizona asking a federal judge to order changes in the department run by Arpaio, 79, who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” for his stance on illegal immigration.
The Department of Homeland Security, reacting to the Justice Department report, revoked Maricopa County jail officers’ authority to detain people on immigration charges, meaning they cannot continue to hold immigration violators who are not charged with local crimes.
The Arizona probe is one of 20 similar federal investigations under way nationwide by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division — “more than any time in the division’s history,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez. Many of the investigations began with requests from local police departments, such as in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and others are under way in Seattle and Portland, Ore. Federal prosecutors in New Orleans have obtained criminal convictions and prison sentences against several police officials for brutality in the days after the hurricane.
Perez, in a letter of warning Thursday to Maricopa County officials, said “deputies, detention officers, supervisory staff and command staff, including Sheriff Arpaio, have engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos.”
He described Latinos arrested on unreasonable traffic stops, businesses raided when Latinos gather out front, inmates mocked with racial epithets, and 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation, often involving Latinos, that “were not properly investigated over a three-year period.”
One Latino was intentionally hit by a patrol car and dragged, with instructions for other deputies to “leave him there,” prosecutors said. A Latino motorist was incarcerated for 13 days for not using his turn signal. Emails written by deputies caricatured Mexicans as being from “Mexifornia,” and deputies derided Latino inmates as “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” “stupid Mexicans” and unprintable epithets.
Prosecutors say the abuse begins with deputies targeting Latino drivers, who it said were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than whites, and asserted that officers “treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented.”
The findings set the stage for a faceoff with the often abrasive sheriff.
Perez warned that if Arpaio was not interested in making drastic changes, “we are prepared to file a civil action to compel compliance.” That lawsuit would ask a federal judge to force Maricopa County “to address the violations of the Constitution and federal law.” A federal criminal investigation of the department’s public corruption unit is continuing.
Arguing that Arpaio’s leadership has long fostered a bias against “dark skin” people, Perez told reporters, “We have peeled the onion to the core,” adding, “we have to do cultural change, and cultural change starts with people at the top.”
Arpaio said at a televised news conference in Arizona that he would try to cooperate, but that “if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.”
He criticized the Justice Department findings as “a sad day for America as a whole,” and said that federal government intervention into his sheriff’s office would only lead to the release of jail inmates being held on immigration charges after committing previous offenses.
“Don’t come here and use me as a whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said. “We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration.”
Arpaio was first elected sheriff in 1992 and has remained a popular figure, particularly among conservative illegal immigration hawks. Voters in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, re-elected him in 2008 with about 55 percent of the vote. A former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Arpaio has provided something of a Rorschach test for Arizonans, representing either a refreshingly tough approach to policing or an example of law enforcement gone wild.
Maricopa County, which has nearly 4 million residents, has been particularly troubled by illegal immigration. The area has become a hotbed of gun running, kidnappings and drug smuggling. The Justice Department warning letter noted that violent crime rose by 69 percent between 2004 and 2007, including a 166 percent increase in homicides.
Arpaio has responded by housing inmates in tents, clothing them in pink underwear and serving green and blue meat.
Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the sheriff’s department could not be reformed unless Arpaio stepped down. “He’s the one who made himself a national figure by violating people’s rights,” Grijalva said.
Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney in Arizona who represented two local government officials who butted heads with Arpaio, only to be retaliated against, said of the sheriff: “If not for the federal government, this county would be run like a fiefdom.”
In recent months, there have been some signs that Arizonans are weary of Arpaio’s get-tough approach on illegal immigration. Earlier this year, Arpaio ally Russell Pearce, president of the state Senate and author of SB 1070, the state’s controversial law targeting illegal immigrants for deportation, failed to push through a raft of anti-illegal-immigration bills. In November, Pearce was booted from office in a recall election.
The same group that targeted Pearce, Citizens for a Better Arizona, has recently turned its attention to Arpaio.
Prosecutors said Arpaio often was personally involved in abuses. In 2008 he received a letter expressing dismay that none of the employees of a local Sun City McDonald’s restaurant spoke English. The sheriff wrote a note thanking the writer “for the info” and promising to “look into it.” Two weeks later, at Arpaio’s request, his deputies conducted an immigration operation in Sun City.
That same year, after receiving a letter about day laborers in Mesa, Arpaio responded, “I will be going into Mesa.” Soon afterward his deputies conducted several crackdowns on crime in that community. When another letter arrived complaining of “dark skin” people in Phoenix, Arpaio passed it to his command staff with orders to “have someone handle this.”
(Serrano reported from Washington and Powers from Las Vegas. Staff writer David G. Savage in Washington contributed to this report.)
©2011 Tribune Co.