Justice Department sues Maricopa County Sheriff for discriminating against Latinos

In a rare move, the Justice Department has sued the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for allegedly discriminating against Latinos and abusing law enforcement powers to retaliate against critics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s anti-immigration policies.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. SOURCE: Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

The complaint was filed today in the U.S. Court for the District of Arizona after months of negotiations broke down due to Arpaio’s refusal to allow an independent monitor to oversee the department’s compliance with the terms of any settlement reached.

“The police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them. At its core, this is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff and sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, comprised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics,” said Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division. “Constitutional policing and effective policing go hand-in-hand. Our complaint alleges that the defendants’ actions were neither constitutional nor effective.”

Read more: Timeline of U.S. v. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

Perez pointed out that use of independent monitors is not unusual in cases involving alleged police misconduct and abuse of power. Independent monitors were used to ensure that “reforms are carried out in an effective, fair, and sustainable fashion” in settlements with the Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati police departments. (Also, civil settlement cases, such as the $25 billion mortgage settlement with the 5 largest U.S. servicers, are often overseen by independent monitors.)

If successful, the lawsuit would allow the Justice Department to cut off federal funding unless the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office discontinues its racial profiling, unlawful detentions, and other discriminatory practices that violate the constitutional rights of Latinos. Maricopa County currently receives federal funding from the DOJ’s Office of Justice Program (OJP) grants, Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants, and the Equitable Sharing Program – all of which required the county and sheriff’s department to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin.

Arpaio told reporters at a press conference that he intends to “fight this to the bitter end.” Arpaio is no stranger to controversy. Dubbed “America’s toughest sheriff”, Arpaio is known for forcing male inmates to wear pink underwears, compelling inmates to work in chain gangs, and cutting meals in jails to twice a day.

Allegations against Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Sheriff Joe Arpaio

The complaint outlined three major allegations against the sheriff’s department: (1) biased policing practices targeting Latino drivers, (2) discrimination and harsher than necessary treatments against Latinos with limited English skills held in Maricopa jails, and (3) arbitrary and unlawful arrests to intimidate and retaliate against perceived critics of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s policies.

“[The] violations of the Constitution and laws of the United States are the product of a culture of disregard in MCSO for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization,” according to the complaint. “MCSO jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as ‘wetbacks,’ ‘Mexican bitches,’ and ‘stupid Mexicans.'”

As a result, the complaint continues, “Latinos in Maricopa County are systematically denied their constitutional rights; the relationship between MCSO and key segments of the community is eroded, making it more difficult for MCSO to fight crime; and the safety of prisoners and officers in the jails is jeopardized. Constitutional policing is an essential element of effective law enforcement. MCSO and Arpaio’s conduct is neither constitutional nor effective law enforcement.”

The anti-Latino policies were started in 2006 when Arpaio decided to turn the sheriff’s department into a “full-fledged anti-illegal immigration agency.” But with Latinos making up 30% of Maricopa’s population, the biased policing practices have frequently subjected U.S. citizens and legal immigrants to harassment, unlawful detention, and mistreatment by Maricopa Sheriff’s officers. In fact, the Justice Department found that the “vast majority” of the Latinos stopped by MCSO officers were U.S. citizens and not illegal immigrants.

“If you looked Latino, you were all too frequently fair game for MCSO officers,” said Perez. 

The Justice Department also noted that Maricopa County saw a spike in violent crime rates since the sheriff’s department started focusing on low-level immigration offenses. Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has devoted more resources to immigration enforcement at the expense of addressing the growing homicide and sexual assault rates, according to the complaint.

Key excerpts from the DOJ’s complaint

Biased policing against Latinos 

“The unlawful targeting and stopping of Latinos by MCSO officers through routine traffic enforcement activities and immigration-related operations has led to the mistreatment of Latinos. For example, an MCSO officer stopped a Latina woman – a citizen of the United States and five months pregnant at the time – as she pulled into her driveway. After she exited her car, the officer then insisted that she sit on the hood of the car. When she refused, the officer grabbed her arms, pulled them behind her back, and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times. He then dragged her to the patrol car and shoved her into the backseat. He left her in the patrol car for approximately 30 minutes without air conditioning. The MCSO officer ultimately issued a citation for failure to provide identification. This citation was later changed to failure to provide proof of insurance. The citation was resolved when the woman provided her proof of insurance to the local court.” (U.S. v. Maricopa County complaint, page 10 – 11)


Discrimination against Latinos with limited English skills 

“MCSO is aware of the discriminatory treatment of Latino LEP [limited English proficient] prisoners in its jails; yet, it allows the jails to continue to operate in a discriminatory manner and fails to take basic, well-established measures to address and correct these matters…MCSO’s failure to provide language assistance means that Latino LEP prisoners are denied the services, programs, and activities that MCSO makes available to non-LEP prisoners.

“MCSO detention officers routinely have refused to accept grievance forms or prisoner request orders (“tank orders”) written in Spanish. Grievance forms provide the means for prisoners to report misconduct by a detention officer. Tank orders provide the means for prisoners to request basic daily services, religious materials, legal research, or information—such as court dates, and other important information.

“For example, female Latino LEP prisoners have been denied basic sanitary items. In some instances, female Latino LEP prisoners have been forced to remain with sheets or pants soiled from menstruation because of MCSO’s failure to ensure that detention officers provide language assistance in such circumstances.”

(U.S. v. Maricopa County complaint, page 20 – 21)


Retaliations against critics of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department

“On repeated occasions, MCSO officers arrested persons who had expressed their disagreement with MCSO immigration policies during the course of County Board meetings by applauding. These arrests were unjustified, as the arrestees did not disrupt the meeting in any meaningful way. Indeed, the judge presiding over the trial of the arrestees found that the arresting MCSO deputy ‘believes it is his role to make uncomfortable anyone who express[es] views that disagree with the Sheriff” and that Arpaio’s officers had “trampl[ed] on the First Amendment.’ The court acquitted the arrestees on its own motion at the close of the State’s case.

“Another critic of Arpaio was arrested for engaging in protected speech, and was subsequently acquitted. Despite the acquittal, Arpaio explicitly stated that ‘[i]n the same circumstance, he would be arrested again,’ making clear that retaliation, rather than legitimate law enforcement, motivates Arpaio’s treatment of his critics.” (U.S. v. Maricopa County complaint, page 25)


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