US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Sheriff Joe Arpaio faulted by feds for treatment of Hispanics

By Father Tom Joyce, CMF | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Justice Department’s civil rights division, after an investigation of three and a half years, has cited Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County office for racial profiling Hispanics in traffic stops and immigration sweeps and for treating Spanish speakers in his county jail badly. It found the office had “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.” (See Arizona Republic, for a summary of the charges.) The self-styled “America’s toughest sheriff” has until January 4 to cooperate in addressing the abuses or the Justice Department will drag his office into court. This comes on mounting criticism of the sheriff for lax pursuit of 400 sex-related cases, poor administration, and calls for Sheriff Joe’s resignation.

The Justice Department seeks the sheriff office’s cooperation in righting its wrongs, but if history is any indication that’s not likely to happen. When it began its investigation, and especially after it became public, Sheriff Joe stonewalled it and only relented on threats of a civil suit. He relented and provided documents, even fired some of his top administrators and made minor improvements like providing better translation services. Yet he continues to deny the charge that his office is targeting Hispanics. The Justice Department’s report is damning and may signal the end of Sheriff Joe's 20 year tenure. He is also a part of a criminal investigation and must face the voters next year.

Specifically, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is charged with arbitrarily stopping Hispanics for trivial or even non-existent traffic violations and sometimes hauling legal residents in as undocumented aliens. In jail, the report finds prisoners with poor or no English are denied some services available to others and made to fill out forms in a language they didn’t understated. His critics often felt his wrath--the criminal investigation is about abuse use of his office to retaliate. The report also faults the training of the sheriff deputies and accuses them of poor community relations.

Sheriff Arpaio disputes the findings of the report. He’s never felt he’s been unfair, only that his critics don’t appreciate his tough policing. They on the other hand feel vindicated and are renewing calls for his resignation. Gov. Jan Brewer avoided direct comment, but it wasn’t a good omen for the sheriff that she said she believes “strongly that no Arizonan should have his/her civil rights violated.” Within hours of releasing the report, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Nepolitano, who scuffled with Sheriff Joe when she was governor, dropped Maricopa County Sheriff Office from participation in the Secure Communities program. (Incidentally, the Secure Communities has its own problems. The New York Times reports two cases of American citizens detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles.)

The Justice Department’s report may be the beginning of the end to Sheriff Joe.  He may surprise the world and cooperate, but that remains to be seen. A bigger question is how the report will impact on an electorate that has consistently returned him to office by large majorities. There is some evidence that the people may be tiring of the negative publicity Arizona as been receiving over the immigration issue. But that also remains to be seen.