Updated: Dec. 15, 12:42PM
Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio has “promoted a culture of bias” against Latinos in his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and communicated to officers that “biased policing would not only be tolerated, but encouraged,” according to a just-released report by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
DOJ investigators found during a three year probe that there was reasonable cause to believe that Arpaio, who fancies himself America’s Toughest Sheriff, and the Maricopa County’s Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) have engaged “in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing” and “engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos; and unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize MCSO’s policies or practices.”
Arpaio, who endorsed Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry late last month, was found to have helped create what one deputy called a “wall of distrust” between MCSO deputies and Maricopa County’s Latino residents.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, told reporters in a conference call on Thursday morning that the department’s “exhaustive” investigation took “longer than it should have” because of a lack of cooperation from MCSO. He said they didn’t go into the probe with any “pre-conceived notions” but followed the investigation where it led.
“What is unique about the findings here is what appears to be at the highest levels of the organization, and that’s an issue — when we were peeling the onion — that began to jump out at us more and more and more,” Perez told reporters.
“I think that we can turn the culture around, but it will take persistence on our part,” Perez said.
DOJ’s 22-page report — based on interviews with over 400 individuals including Arpaio, reviews of tens of thousands of pages of evidence, tours of MCSO’s jails and the aid of four leading police practice experts — gives a few examples of Arpaio nurturing what Perez called MCSO’s “deeply routed culture. They say Arpaio frequently received “racially charged” constituent letters that he circulated to others in his staff after he marked them up with notes that “appear to endorse the content of the letter.”
Many of the letters, said DOJ, “contain no meaningful descriptions of criminal activity — just crude, ethnically derogatory language about Latinos.” In one instance, Arpaio dubbed a letter asking him to “round-up” of people with “dark skin” on a corner in Phoenix as “intelligence” and asked a member of his command staff to have “someone handle this.”
The investigation also found that MCSO detention officers calls Latinos “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches,” “fucking Mexicans” and “stupid Mexicans.” A statistical study commissioned by DOJ also found that Latino drivers “are four to nine times more likely to be stopped” than similarly situated non-Latino drivers.
Perez said he is hopeful that despite Arpaio’s lack of cooperation in the probe they can settle the civil matter without litigation. A separate criminal investigation of MCSO, being led by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona, is ongoing.
“The stakes are high for the community, the stakes are high for MCSO,” Perez told reporters. “If we have to litigate, we’ll litigate. I’d much rather cooperate and solve the problem that way.”