For the second time in three years, the Justice Department is suing Arizona’s controversial “Sheriff Joe” as part of its investigation of his Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for alleged discrimination of Latinos.
The department cut off settlement negotiations last month to resolve its investigation with Joe Arpaio — self-described “America’s Toughest Sheriff” — after signs that a settlement and final resolution of the three-year dispute was nearing. The sheriff’s office notified the department 24 hours before one of the last negotiating sessions that it would refuse the appointment of an outside monitor to oversee operations. As the monitor is a requirement for any settlement with the department, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin in the Civil Rights Division wrote the office is “wasting time and not negotiating in good faith.”
Arpaio, in response, told journalists that he’d be “be glad to meet them in court,” referring to the DOJ.
Civil Division chief Thomas Perez said in a conference call with reporters Thursday that the department is not seeking monetary damages from the office — it just wants to fix the problems. “Police are supposed to protect and serve our communities, not divide them,” Perez said. “Law enforcement agencies can’t cut constitutional corners in pursuit of their objectives.”
Perez said the office – starting at the top – displays a “culture of disregard of Latinos.” He said, for example, in the course of the investigation, federal lawyers discovered an email circulated widely by a sheriff’s office supervisor depicting an image of a chihuahua wearing swimming gear. Beneath it read: “A rare photo of a Mexican Navy seal.” Perez also pointed to the regular use of derogatory terms, including “wetback” and “Mexican b-tches,” according to the investigation’s findings.
The lawsuit, which has been filed in federal district court in Arizona against Arpaio, the sheriff’s office and Maricopa County, seeks to force the law enforcement agency to comply with the department’s proposed reforms.
“If indeed Maricopa County wants to go to the mat and go to trial, I think here is a lot at stake,” Perez said.
In a rare move, the department sued in 2010 to force the Arizona-based sheriff’s office to submit to the Civil Rights Division’s discrimination probe, which began in 2008. The suit came when Arpaio, who has come to national prominence for his ultra-conservative stances, including as a leader of the so-called “birther” movement that doesn’t believe President Barack Obama was born in the United States, had initially refused to hand over documents as part of the investigation. In December, the Civil Rights Division released a report detailing what it described as grave misconduct it found within the sheriff’s office, including racial profiling of Latinos, unlawful retaliation and discriminatory prison practices. The sheriff has previously said he believes the report was merely an election-year ruse by Obama to win Latino votes.