Understaffing cited in botched Arizona probes

By Jacques Billeaud and Walter Berry

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Feb. 11 2013 10:24 p.m. MST

PHOENIX — A report examining hundreds of sex-crimes cases that were inadequately investigated or not looked into at all by an Arizona sheriff's office attributes the failures to understaffing and mismanagement, including hundreds of pieces of evidence that were intended for storage but instead left in offices or taken home by detectives.

The internal affairs report released Monday blamed officers on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's sex-crimes squad for some failures and noted that the sex-crimes squad was "overworked and understaffed." But the report said officials were rescinding earlier letters to the officers in question that threatened to discipline them.

"This systematic problem could not then, and cannot now, be properly addressed or corrected by disciplining a few individuals," Arpaio aide Brian Sands wrote in a new letter Monday to one of the squad members. Sands wrote that officers fell short in their duties because they were assigned an overwhelming volume of complex, time-consuming cases to investigate. The squad had too few detectives, and budget restrictions limited overtime hours.

The report also attributed the failures to detectives marking cases as cleared when investigations were still under way, and to a supervisor who didn't use the agency's case tracking system and instead relied a written log that often lacked key information and made it virtually impossible to determine the status of each case.

The internal investigation was launched in May 2008 after the city of El Mirage, which paid Arpaio's office for police services, said it discovered at least 32 reported child molestations in which the sheriff's office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.

El Mirage, a heavily Hispanic community near Phoenix, alleged there were many cases in which sheriff's investigators wrote no follow-up reports, collected no additional forensic evidence and made no effort after the initial crime report was taken.

Arpaio's office eventually reopened more than 400 of its sex-crime cases countywide after finding they were inadequately investigated or not examined at all. The botched investigations have been an embarrassment to a department whose sheriff is the self-described "America's toughest sheriff" and a national hero to conservatives on immigration issues.

Arpaio apologized in December 2011 for the bungled cases, and his office has since said it has moved to clear up the cases and taken steps to prevent the problem from happening again.

The internal investigation launched in May 2008 was stopped after its investigator was pulled away at the direction of David Hendershott, Arpaio's then-top aide, to help with another matter. The probe was reopened in December 2010 while Hendershott was on medical leave.

The botched investigations were mentioned in a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department that alleges a range of civil rights violations in Arpaio's immigration patrols and jails.

The Justice Department accused the sheriff's office of failing to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence and focusing intensively on low-level immigration offenses over more serious crime. Arpaio's office has denied the allegations.

Arpaio's critics used the bungled investigations to hammer on the sheriff last year as he was campaigning for a sixth term. He was forced to plow millions of dollars into the race to fend off the challenge. In the end, Arpaio won by a six-point margin.

Last month, a group launched a campaign to call a recall election against the six-term sheriff.

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