After a three-year battle to conclude its investigation of the Maricopa County Sherrif’s Office, the Justice Department today revealed grave misconduct by the force, including racial profiling of Latinos, unlawful retaliation and discriminatory prison practices.
Thomas Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a call with reporters the divison found that discriminatory policing in Maricopa County, Ariz., was “deeply rooted in the culture of the department.” That culture, he said, “breeds a systemic disregard” for civil rights.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio initially stonewalled the DOJ’s requests for documents pertaining to the civil rights investigation, which began in 2008. The department then took an unprecedented step in September 2010 when it filed suit against the sheriff’s office, demanding full cooperation with and access to officers and relevant documents, Perez said.
Perez said the Civil Rights Division is currently investigating 20 police forces around the country – the most ever in the history of the division. Perez said the investigation into the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is unique from other investigations – including those in Portland, Seattle and New Orleans – and because of the findings of retaliation against those who criticized the department’s actions.
The investigation found that the sheriff’s office maintained a “wall of distrust” between its officers and members of the community, Perez said. More than 400 people were interviewed – including Arpaio – thousands of documents were read and DOJ officials toured the county’s jails, he said.
The investigation showed that the department routinely unlawfully arrested Latinos and punished inmates who had poor English skills, Perez said. In some cases, Spanish-speaking inmates would be placed in solitary confinement because they could not understand commands given to them in English, he said. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One racial profiling expert brought on as part of the investigation said the actions of the Maricopa County Sherriff’s office were the “most eggregious… he had every personally observed in his work,” Perez said. The expert found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be pulled over by county sheriff officer’s than residents of other races, he said.
The Civil Rights Division continues to investigate allegations of excessive use of force and inadequate responses to reports of sexual assault, Perez said.
Perez said the DOJ hopes it can work collaboratively with Sheriff Arpaio and the department to create a systemic culture change.
He said the report given to the sheriff’s office details that the department has a 60-day time frame to resolve the civil rights violations. He said the DOJ will be working collaboratively with officers in Maricopa County. If the DOJ finds proper steps are not followed, Perez said, legal action will be taken.
Perez released a full statement on the investigation here.