Feds issue scathing report against AZ sheriff

By Jacques Billeaud

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 8:01 p.m. MST

FILE - In a Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011 file photo, protesters hold up signs calling for the removal or resignation of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, during a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting, in Phoenix. Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011. Federal authorities plan to announce their findings Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011 in a civil rights investigation of Arpaio, who has been accused of using discriminatory tactics in its signature immigration patrols.

Ross D. Franklin, File, Associated Press

PHOENIX — A scathing U.S. Justice Department report released Thursday found that Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office carried out a 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.

Arpaio struck a defiant tone in response to the report, calling it a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration that will make Arizona unsafe by keeping illegal immigrants on the street. "Don't come here and use me as the whipping boy for a national and international problem," he said at a news conference.

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 found the sheriff's office to be 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," Perez said.

The report will be used by the Justice Department to seek major changes at Arpaio's office, such as new policies against discrimination and improvements 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 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. He called the report "a sad day for America as a whole."

"We are going to cooperate the best we can. And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court," Arpaio said.

Arpaio said the decision by Homeland Security to sever ties will result in illegal immigrants being released from jail and large numbers. They will go undetected and be "dumped on a street near you. For that, you can thank the federal government," the sheriff said.

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.

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