WASHINGTON — The Department of Justice sued Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his Phoenix law enforcement department Thursday, alleging a pattern of abuse and racism against Latinos, especially immigrants, and asking a federal judge to force the 20-year, often outspoken and brazen sheriff to stop racially profiling Latinos and abusing them in his jails.
"The police are supposed to protect and support our community, not divide them," said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, head of the department's Civil Rights Division. "This is an abuse of power case involving a sheriff and a sheriff's office that has ignored the Constitution."
Arpaio, who was warned in December that a lawsuit was coming if he did not clean up his jails and sheriff's patrols, attempted to block the suit by issuing a 17-page document Wednesday called "Integrity, Accountability, Community." Perez said the document was "largely an admission of the problem."
But, Perez added, "this too-little too-late document cobbled together beyond the 11th hour" was unsatisfactory and federal authorities decided Thursday to file their suit in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.
It asks a federal judge to "put in place any remedies to correct the violations" by naming an independent monitor to oversee the sheriff's office, develop reform policies and possibly find Arpaio and other top sheriff's officials in contempt of court if they do not comply.
Arpaio, however, who often has been incredibly stubborn when anyone criticizes his entrenched power, could ask for a trial to rebut the allegations. Perez warned that the sheriff would be doing so at his own peril.
"If Maricopa County wants to go to the mat and go to trial," Perez said, "there is a lot at stake."
Among the findings by Justice officials in the suit are that Arpaio allowed and encouraged his deputies to randomly profile Latino motorists and stop them for little reason.
"If you look Latino, you are too often fair game," Perez said.
Arpaio remains a popular figure in Arizona. Andi Bell, who organized a walk of support for Arpaio last month, said any lawsuit against the sheriff is unfair.
"Everyone has been going after Joe Arpaio. He does not exist to break the law," Bell told the Los Angeles Times. "The Department of Justice and the administration is not protecting us in Arizona _ he is."
Other alleged violations detailed Thursday were not providing language assistance to Spanish speakers in the jails, and Arpaio's retaliatory actions against local critics, which have included judges, lawyers and community leaders.
As an example of what he called pervasive demeaning behavior against Latinos, Perez said deputies once circulated a picture of a Chihuahua dog in swimwear, with the caption, "A rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal."
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