Feds issue scathing report against AZ sheriff

By Jacques Billeaud

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

Protesters Sergio Juarez, right, and Rafael Guerrero, both of Phoenix, wait to get into a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, in Phoenix. Roughly 100 opponents of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio turned out at the meeting to urge the officials to call for Arpaio's resignation amid reports of botched sex-crime investigations and other problems in his department.

Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

PHOENIX — A scathing U.S. Justice Department report released Tuesday found that Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office carried out an blatant pattern of discrimination against Latinos and held a "systematic disregard" for the Constitution amid a series of immigration crackdowns that have turned the lawman into a prominent national political figure.

The government found that Arpaio's office committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including unjust immigration patrols and jail policies that deprive prisoners of basic Constitutional rights.

The Justice Department's expert on measuring racial profiling said it is the most egregious case of profiling in the nation that he has seen or reviewed in professional literature, said Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division.

"We found discriminatory policing that was deeply rooted in the culture of the department, a culture that breeds a systematic disregard for basic constitutional protections," said Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division.

The findings will force Arpaio's department to make major changes to carry out new policies against discrimination and improve training of staff and officers. Arpaio faces a Jan. 4 deadline for saying whether he wants to work out an agreement to make the changes. If not, the federal government will sue him, possibly putting in jeopardy millions of dollars in federal funding for Maricopa County.

The fallout from the report was swift. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced it is severing its ties with Arpaio, stripping his jail officers of their federal power to check whether inmates in county jails are in the county illegally, a move that was meant to speed up deportation.

Homeland security officials also are restricting Arpaio's office from using a program that uses fingerprints collected in local jails to identify illegal immigrants.

Arpaio did not immediately respond to the complaint, but scheduled a news conference to discuss the allegations leveled in an investigation that began back in the Bush administration. He has long denied the racial profiling allegations, saying people are stopped if deputies have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many of them are illegal immigrants.

The Justice Department's conclusions in the civil probe mark the federal government's harshest rebuke of a national political fixture who has risen to prominence for his immigration crackdowns and became coveted endorsement among candidates in the GOP presidential field. Arpaio ultimately decided to endorse Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who denounced the findings Thursday as politically motivated.

Arpaio has built his reputation on jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear, selling himself to voters as unceasingly tough on crime and pushing the bounds of how far local police can go to confront illegal immigration. He began aggressive sweeps in immigrant neighborhoods long before the state Legislature passed a 2010 law that cracks down on illegal immigrants and is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

While widely popular among conservatives nationwide, Arpaio faces numerous problems at home that have him facing almost-daily calls to step down.

Apart from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury also has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009 and is specifically examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad. The squad launched investigations of officials, lawyers and judges who ran afoul of Arpaio, and the cases all collapsed.