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Justice: Arpaio engaged in 'wide-ranging discrimination' vs. Latinos

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Justice: Arpaio engaged in 'wide-ranging discrimination' vs. Latinos

MCSO practices racial profiling, civil rights report alleges

  • Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Sept. 2010.
    Maria Polletta/Cronkite News ServiceMaricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Sept. 2010.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio engaged in "wide-ranging discrimination against Latinos and retaliatory actions against individuals who criticized" his office, the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday, announcing the results of a civil rights investigation.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office practices racial profiling in traffic stops and immigration sweeps, and discriminates against Spanish-speaking inmates in county jails, a Justice Department report alleged.

Arpaio's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Arpaio's office has until Jan. 4 to decide whether to cooperate and work out a court-enforceable agreement to halt the practices, or face a lawsuit under the Civil Rights Act.

"MCSO’s systematic disregard for basic constitutional protections has created a wall of distrust between the sheriff’s office and large segments of the community, which dramatically compromises the ability to protect and serve the people," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, announcing the results of a 3 1/2-year investigation.

Latino drivers are four to nine times as likely to be stopped by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office than non-Latino drivers, Justice said in the report.

One-fifth of the traffic-related incident reports generated by MCSO's Human Smuggling Unit over three years, almost all of which involved Latino drivers, "contained information indicating that the stops were conducted in violation of the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable seizures," Justice said.

Some legal residents were treated as if they were illegal immigrants, and some were even taken to jail, the report said.

Latino inmates were punished if they understood or spoke English poorly, and some were denied services available to English speakers, the report said.

"Our investigation uncovered a number of instances in which immigration-related crime suppression activities were initiated in the community after MCSO received complaints that described no criminal activity, put rather referred, for instance, to individuals with "dark skin" congregating in one area, or individuals speaking Spanish at a local business. The use of these types of bias-infected indicators as a basis for conducting enforcement activity contributes to the high number of stops and detentions lacking in legal justification," Justice said.

Violent crime increased as MCSO focused on immigration

Arpaio's "prioritization of immigration enforcement may have compromised its ability to secure the safety and security of Maricopa County residents. Since MCSO shifted its focus toward combating illegal immigration, violent crime rates in the county have increased significantly as compared to similarly situated jurisdictions," Justice said.

"From 2004 to the end of 2007, reported violent crimes grew by over 69 percent, including a 166 percent increase in homicides over the three-year period. Since 2008, violent crime rates have remained at roughly the same level in Maricopa County, while dropping by over 10 percent in similarly situated jurisdictions," Justice said.

Justice has expanded its inquiry to encompass some 400 sex crimes on which Arpaio's office did little or no investigation, Perez said.

'Deeply rooted problems'

"The problems are deeply rooted in MCSO’s culture, and are compounded by MCSO’s penchant for retaliation against individuals who speak out," Perez said in a press release:

The department found reasonable cause to believe that a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and/or violations of federal law occurred in several areas, including:

  • Discriminatory policing practices including unlawful stops, detentions and arrests of Latinos;
  • Unlawful retaliation against individuals exercising their First Amendment right to criticize MCSO's policies or practices, including but not limited to practices relating to its discriminatory treatment of Latinos; and
  • Discriminatory jail practices against Latino inmates with limited English proficiency by punishing them and denying them critical services.

The Justice Department found a number of long-standing and entrenched systemic deficiencies that caused or contributed to these patterns of unlawful conduct, including:

  • A failure to implement policies guiding deputies on lawful policing practices;
  • Allowing specialized units to engage in unconstitutional practices;
  • Inadequate training;
  • Inadequate supervision;
  • An ineffective disciplinary, oversight and accountability system; and
  • A lack of sufficient external oversight and accountability.

In addition to these formal pattern or practice findings, the investigation uncovered additional areas of serious concern, including:

  • Use of excessive force;
  • Police practices that have the effect of significantly compromising MCSO's ability to adequately protect Latino residents; and
  • Failure to adequately investigate allegations of sexual assaults.

While no formal findings of pattern or practice violations have been made in connection with these issues, the investigation remains ongoing.

"Effective policing and constitutional policing go hand in hand. Developing and implementing meaningful reforms will assist in reducing crime, ensuring respect for the Constitution, and ensuring that the people of Maricopa County have confidence in MCSO’s commitment to fair and effective law enforcement," said Perez. 

"We hope to resolve the concerns outlined in our findings in a collaborative fashion, but we will not hesitate to take appropriate legal action if MCSO chooses a different course of action," he said.

Perez's remarks

Remarks by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, as prepared for delivery at a Thursday morning press conference:

Good morning. We are here to discuss the results of our civil rights investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

In June 2008, the Justice Department began its investigation of MCSO. Our investigation initially focused on allegations that MCSO was engaging in discriminatory policing and discrimination in its jails. As with all of our investigations, our mission here was, and will continue to be, to determine the truth. We did not begin this investigation with any preconceived notions. Rather, we followed all logical leads and conducted a full and thorough review.

The investigation took longer than expected and, frankly, longer than it should have because MCSO failed to cooperate with our requests for information. We were forced to take the virtually unprecedented step of filing suit in 2010 to compel cooperation. As a result of this litigation, MCSO changed course and began to fulfill its legal obligation by providing us with all of the information we had been seeking. We were able to complete the investigation, and this has been an exhaustive investigation. We interviewed over 400 people, including Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, reviewed thousands of pages of documents, toured MCSO's jails, and engaged leading experts in a number of areas.

In short, we have peeled the onion to its core, and earlier today, we shared our findings with MCSO. As outlined in our findings letter, we found reasonable cause to believe that MCSO engages in a pattern or practice of violating the Constitution and laws of the United States in 3 areas.

First, we found that MCSO engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing; specifically, MCSO engages in racial profiling of Latinos, and unlawfully stops, detains and arrests Latinos.

Second, we found that MCSO unlawfully retaliates against people who criticize its policies and practices.

Third, we found reasonable cause to believe that MCSO operates its jails in a manner that discriminates against Latino inmates that are limited English proficient. We find that MCSO routinely punishes Latino inmates that are limited English proficient when they fail to understand commands given in English, and denies critical services that are provided to other inmates. These actions violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Our letter of finding provides details regarding these three areas, and outlines the investigative steps we took that led us to make these conclusions. In the area of discriminatory policing, our investigation found that MCSO deputies engage in unlawful racial profiling of Latino drivers. We engaged one of the nation's leading experts on racial profiling, who conducted a thorough statistical analysis of MCSO traffic stops. Our expert found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than similarly situated non-Latino drivers. This expert concluded that this case involved the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he had ever personally observed in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature.

Our case is about more than statistics. It is about real people, law abiding residents of Maricopa County who were caught up in the web of unconstitutional activity, and unlawfully stopped, detained and sometimes arrested. We are not talking about isolated incidents. We found discriminatory policing that was deeply rooted in the culture of the department - a culture that breeds a systemic disregard for basic constitutional protections. It is MCSO's prerogative to establish enforcement priorities. At the same time, in the course of implementing its enforcement priorities, MCSO must comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States.

The problems associated with discriminatory policing are compounded by MCSO's retaliation against individuals who criticized the Department. People opposed to the Department's policies were frequently arrested and jailed for no reason, or forced to defend against specious civil complaints or other baseless charges.

The discriminatory jail practices are particularly troubling because MCSO has been on notice for years of problems in the jail. MCSO acknowledged the importance of being able to communicate with Spanish speaking inmates in Spanish when it issued a policy in 2010 declaring "the use of Spanish is not only important to everyday communication; it is essential to the overall operation of the jails and the safety of the inmates and officers." Meaningful communication with inmates who do not speak English is not simply a civil rights obligation; it is a safety imperative for inmates and officers alike.

In addition to our formal pattern or practice findings, our investigation uncovered three other areas of serious concern. In these areas, we are not making formal pattern or practice findings at this time. Our investigation remains ongoing.

These areas are:

First, use of force. We uncovered a number of troubling incidents involving use of excessive force, and we will continue to look carefully at this issue.

Second, failure to provide adequate policing services in Latino communities; and

Third, failure to adequately investigate allegations of sexual assaults.

We continue to investigate whether the law enforcement policies and practices of MCSO have compromised its ability and/or willingness to provide effective policing services to the Latino community. One deputy whom we interviewed referred to the "wall of distrust" dividing the Latino community and MCSO. We are examining whether this wall of distrust has resulted in second class police protection services for law abiding Latinos in Maricopa County.

We are also reviewing allegations that MCSO has failed to investigate large number of sex crimes. This is not the first police investigation in which the Civil Rights Division has examined this issue. We are currently working with the New Orleans Police Department to address similar issues. The deliberate failure to provide police services, or investigate crimes, can compromise public safety, undermine public confidence, and implicate important constitutional protections.

In short, MCSO is broken in a number of critical respects. The problems are deeply rooted in MCSO's culture, and are compounded by MCSO's penchant for retaliation against people who speak out against them.

Now that I have outlined our findings, let me discuss where we go from here. My strong preference, moving forward, is to work collaboratively not simply with MCSO but with community stakeholders to develop and implement a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform. The community's voice must be heard in this process. Reform will require the participation of the entire community: MCSO's leadership, Sheriff Deputies, public officials, community leaders, and residents. Over the next days and weeks, we will reach out to all segments of the community, we want to hear your concerns and include remedies that will work in THIS community. The Department of Justice will remain engaged until reformed is achieved, but when we are done it is up to the people of Maricopa County and the officers in the Sheriff's Department to ensure that the reform is sustained.

Let me take a moment and speak directly to the men and women of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. These findings are not meant to impugn your character. I believe that you want to keep the people of Maricopa County safe and want to uphold your oath to protect and serve. These findings are about the lack of proper policies, trainings, supervision and accountability that would allow you to do your jobs in a safe and Constitutional way. Our goal is to make your job easier and more rewarding.

In recent years, we have worked productively and effectively with law enforcement agencies and communities to implement reforms that reduce crime, ensure respect for the Constitution, and increase public confidence in law enforcement. We have 20 pattern or practice investigations underway nationwide, which is more than any time in the Division's history. An increasing number of these investigations were initiated at the request of the police department, such as the New Orleans Police Department, and we have additional requests pending from other departments. In our police reform work, collaboration and constructive engagement is the rule; confrontation and combativeness is the exception, New Orleans, Seattle, and Portland to name a few. Less finger pointing and more problem solving has been our approach in these and other cities.

I would prefer to take the collaborative approach here in Maricopa County, because it is clear to me that this community is divided, and it is time to heal. It is time to bring the community together around the shared vision of a Department that is effective in reducing crime, respects the rule of law, and enjoys the confidence of everyone.

It is time to break down the wall of distrust and construct a community where everyone feels safe, there is respect for the rule of law, where "us against them" is replaced by "we're all in this together." That's the essence of community policing.

There is no time to waste. The problems identified in our letter of findings are very serious. They affect public safety, officer safety on the street and in the jail, and they implicate important constitutional protections. Effective policing and constitutional policing go hand in hand. Other departments have recognized this, and we are working collaboratively with us to address important issues.

The Department of Justice stands ready to roll up its sleeves immediately and collaboratively to build a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable reform of MCSO. If collaboration again proves elusive, we will not hesitate to take prompt, appropriate legal action.

We invite anyone who has information that they believe is relevant to this investigation to contact us at 877-613-2137 or email us at

Thank you.

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