Opinions | Dec. 16, 2011 12:00 AM | Source: The Arizona Republic
This is not just about a clownish sheriff riding roughshod on undocumented immigrants.
The Justice Department's investigation into civil- rights violations at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office contains a stunning series of allegations against Sheriff Joe Arpaio's leadership and raises serious concerns about public safety.
The investigation began during the Bush administration. Despite what supporters of Arpaio say, it does not look like a witch hunt or a politically motivated attack.
The Justice Department found evidence of discrimination, retaliation and human- rights abuses that would violate the First, Fourth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution, as well as several federal laws.
"Since roughly 2007, in the course of establishing its immigration enforcement program, MCSO has implemented practices that treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented," a Justice Department report released Thursday says.
This report is shocking even to those long concerned about Arpaio's cavalier attitude toward modern law-enforcement procedures and safeguards.
It documents widespread discrimination against Latinos on the streets and in jails. Racial profiling at the Sheriff's Office makes Latinos four to nine times more likely to be pulled over than non-Latinos, according to the report.
Jail personnel routinely refer to Latino inmates as "wetbacks," "stupid Mexicans" and other epithets we won't repeat. Non-English- speaking inmates are pressured to sign English-language documents in which they agree to forfeit some of their rights, the Justice Department found.
Supervisors circulate e-mails that demean Latinos in vile ways, including one that depicted a drunken man on the ground as a practitioner of "Mexican yoga."
Arpaio's "own actions" helped nurture the "culture of bias," the report says.
This attitude threatens public safety.
In the words of one of his own deputies, Arpaio created a "wall of distrust" between the Sheriff's Office and large segments of the community.
Modern policing relies on breaking down such walls so that victims and witnesses feel confident in coming forward.
The report tells of legal residents and citizens who were detained and badly treated by deputies simply because they were Latino. Hundreds of sex- crimes cases, many involving Latinos, have been botched.
Joe Arpaio built his reputation as a tough sheriff. But people in this community are increasingly seeing his routine as clownish, misguided and anachronistic.
This report reinforces the growing realization, even among supporters, that Arpaio is a detriment to law enforcement. Voters should fire him in November's election.
In the meantime, Arpaio needs to remember he works for the people.
The sheriff did not cooperate with the investigation until the Justice Department took him to court. He may not want to cooperate with the department. But he must.
Rather than go directly to court to seek a cut-off of federal funds and a court order that would mandate change, Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez says he wants to work with Arpaio to develop a "comprehensive plan of reform."
Perez stressed the word "collaborate" repeatedly in a news conference and in an editorial board meeting on Thursday.
Perez said the Justice Department will remain engaged until reform is reached. If Arpaio does not show a good- faith effort to cooperate in 60 days, Perez will go to court. If Arpaio signals that he has no intention of cooperating, Perez will go to court earlier.
The sheriff may prefer to stonewall.
But the Sheriff's Office is publicly funded to serve the public, not the giant ego of one man.
It is in the community's best interest for Arpaio to swallow his considerable pride and cooperate with the Justice Department to eliminate a "culture of bias" that has led to what is now described as the most egregious case of racial profiling in the nation.