‘Nothing Changes’: How Sheriff Joe Arpaio Went To Battle Against Civil Rights Laywers Back In 1997

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks with media during a news conference announcing the opening of Tent City II in Phoenix, Tuesday, May 9,1995.
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Joe Arpaio has been here before. At another time, during another Democratic administration, the tough talking Arizona sheriff was hit with a federal civil rights lawsuit designed to end the abusive practices of his agency.

It was 1997 when the sheriff, then 65, took to a press conference in Phoenix to react to news that the U.S. Justice Department was suing him for what it alleged was a longstanding mistreatment of inmates in his jails.

According to news reports from the time, he promised he would not back down. Everything was going to stay the same. “Nothing changes,” he said.

Flash forward 15 years and Arpaio’s words have turned out to be spot on. He is older now, pushing 80, but the Republican lawman is again facing off with Justice Department lawyers who allege he and his men have violated the civil rights of Arizonans.

This time, the government’s accusations are a little different. They deal largely with the way Arpaio and his office treat Latinos. The suit claims the massive law enforcement agency, which polices a metropolitan area of 3.8 million people, 30 percent of whom are Latino, has a pattern of racial profiling and bias. But the suit goes even further, accusing the sheriff and his deputies of failing to properly investigate hundreds of sex crimes while simultaneously pursuing bogus investigations against his political enemies.

While the latest accusations are more sweeping than those of the past, a look back at the 1997 case shows the sheriff had success standing his ground against the federal government.

Documents from that era, which were provided to TPM this week, also reveal that Arpaio has been using many of the same tactics these days that he used back then. Arpaio’s office has even hired the same private Phoenix law firm of Jones, Skelton & Hochuli that represented it him the last investigation.

The similarities make some of his longtime critics skeptical that the Justice Department will have much of a lasting effect with its latest case.

“I’m pretty confident the one thing you can guarantee is that nothing will change,” said Phoenix attorney Joel Robbins, who provided the archive documents to TPM and who has won numerous lawsuits against Arpaio over the years on behalf of people who were mistreated in the jails. “He doesn’t tend to learn things. His policies seem to be dictated by whatever gets him press coverage and positive feedback from the public. It has nothing to do with what a federal court says or whether a jury tells him to change.”

Janet Napolitano

Janet Napolitano

The last time Arpaio went to war with the federal government, he was facing off against a rising star in Democratic politics named Janet Napolitano.

At the time, she was serving as the U.S. attorney for Arizona, having been chosen for the post by President Bill Clinton. Today, after having been elected as the state’s attorney general and then later as governor, she serves as the U.S. secretary of homeland security under President Obama.

The Justice Department first began its investigation of Arpaio’s jails in 1995 after receiving complaints that inmates were being injured and killed in altercations with detention officers.

A DOJ inquiry completed that year found a “pattern of excessive force” by the sheriff’s staff. It said officers were using dangerous tactics to deal with inmates, including hog tying them and using stun guns on them when they were already detained with handcuffs or strapped into restraining chairs. The investigation found the jails were overcrowded and understaffed. It said internal investigations into use of force by officers were often lacking in details and conclusions.

“Overall, the excessive use of force by staff must be addressed immediately,” investigator Eugene Miller wrote in the report, dated Jan. 10, 1996. “In this regard, there are some systemic issues…which allow instances of excessive force to slip between some administrative cracks and thus, go either undetected or unconfronted.”

Arpaio’s office quickly complained. In an undated response, sheriff’s officials said it was impossible for them to respond to the allegations because the investigator didn’t provide them with all the evidence he collected.

“These are significant allegations but no specifics have been provided,” the sheriff’s office wrote in its response. “Thus, it is impossible to provide a factual response, recommend disciplinary action or take individualized corrective action.”

Arpaio has used the very same complaints in the current case against him.

After the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division revealed its three-and-a-half year investigation into the sheriff’s treatment of Latinos last December, the sheriff complained he wouldn’t be able to respond until the feds handed over all their evidence. That included, he said, the identifies of his agency’s alleged victims.

The tactic worked in the 1990s. It convinced the Justice Department to hire a different and independent investigator to go back and look at Arpaio’s jails. The new investigator, George Sullivan, was agreed on by both the sheriff’s office and the DOJ.

Sullivan’s investigation took about two months and piggybacked off of the work that had already been done by the Justice Department. His report, dated May 14, 1997, was longer and more detailed than Miller’s. It included details about specific use of force complaints.

Sullivan’s report said the sheriff’s office had already addressed some of the issues by the time he began looking into them. But he said the agency still needed to fix systemic problems. Among them, he said the sheriff’s office should do away with its use of restraint chairs and train its detention officers how to better deal with inmates in volatile situations.

Just like in the current case, Arpaio said at the time he was willing to discuss the findings with the Justice Department. “If they find anything that may be wrong, I’ll sit down with them and correct the problem,” Arpaio said, according to an Associated Press story published when the investigation was first launched.

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick

Also like the current case, the Justice Department expressed optimistism that Arpaio and his men would cooperate throughout the investigation. An example of that came in a March 25, 1996 letter sent to Maricopa County officials by Deval Patrick, who was then the assistant attorney general in the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Patrick is now the governor of Massachusetts.

“The professionalism and good faith which have pervaded the response to our investigation,” Patrick wrote, “makes us optimistic that we will be able to resolve the issues raised in this letter in an amicable and efficient manner.”

But, he warned, if the sheriff’s office did not cooperate, “the Attorney General may institute a lawsuit.”

When the second investigation was finished, Robbins, the Phoenix attorney, remembers thinking the Justice Department had the sheriff in a vice grip. Two probes had found widespread problems in the jails. Reform appeared to be almost certain.

“They had him,” Robbins told TPM. “They had him dead to rights.”

Napolitano and other DOJ lawyers began to negotiate with the sheriff, his office and his attorneys on those reforms. But what happened next still remains somewhat hazy after all these years.

After saying it hoped to avoid taking the case to court, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Arpaio’s office on Oct. 21, 1997. It alleged many of the same things that had been laid out in earlier reports. The rights of inmates were violated by the continued use of force.

Ten days later, Arpaio and Napolitano held a joint news conference in Phoenix. They said that the lawsuit didn’t represent a breakdown in talks. In fact, they said, it was part of a settlement they negotiated.

Napolitano called it a “technicality” and described the lawsuit merely as “a lawyer’s paperwork,” according to a Phoenix New Times story from the time. She said it would be dropped if the settlement went according to plan.

As the Arizona Republic reported later, that’s when Arpaio took to the microphone to declare, “nothing changes.”

Not long after the news conference, Napolitano left the U.S. Attorney’s Office to run for state attorney general. The civil rights lawsuit was dismissed on July 6, 1998. Napolitano won the election that November.

Critics of both Arpaio and Napolitano saw that as an important moment for both of them. Arpaio was politically popular and Napolitano was poised to run for political office. A heated and ugly lawsuit could have complicated things for both of them.

In 2002, when Napolitano was running for governor, Arizona Republic columnist Richard Ruelas described the 1997 arrangement as “a favor” to the sheriff. The way it was handled did little to change how Arpaio’s agency treated inmates.

“Now,” Ruelas wrote, “five years later, he has paid her back.”

Napolitano was deep in an ugly three-way race for the top office in Arizona, going up against a Republican and an independent, when she was attacked by one of her opponents over a child molestation case she prosecuted as U.S. attorney.

To the surprise of many in the state, including many Republicans, Arpaio crossed party lines to tape a television ad defending her. “She was the Number One prosecutor of child molesters in the nation,” the ad said. The boost helped. Napolitano ended up winning the race with 46 percent of the vote.

“Arpaio’s ad is correct,” Ruelas wrote at the time. “Napolitano’s record on prosecuting child molesters is stellar. It’s her record on prosecuting inept public officials that’s dismal.”

In a conference call with reporters on Thursday from Phoenix, Thomas Perez, the current head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, said he hoped things would work out better this time. He said the problem with the last lawsuit was that it was never enforced.

“As a result, the reforms proved not to be sustainable,” he said. “So history in the jail process is repeating itself in today’s complaints.”

Additional reporting by Ryan J. Reilly

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