This piece originally appeared in The Arizona Republic.
It’s been seven years since the ACLU first challenged Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office policies targeting Latino motorists. We confirmed during last week’s contempt hearing against county sheriff’s officials that competent, professional law enforcement agencies don’t vilify Latinos in order to garner publicity.
While the ACLU’s goal in filing the lawsuit was to end racial profiling, the case has exposed countless troubling sheriff’s office policies that are completely out of line with best practices for any government agency. Under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is politicized, training and oversight are ineffective, and internal investigations are a mess.
“There is lack of leadership at all levels of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, and in particular, in the upper command ranks of the Office,” the court-appointed, independent monitor wrote in a report released this month. “In short, the organization, and its leadership team, has failed both the community and its personnel.”
Arpaio already admitted that he violated a federal court’s order relating to deputies’ detention of Latinos. When questioned under oath last week, he said the order “must have slipped through the cracks.” This is an unacceptable response from the head of one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the state. The sheriff took an oath to uphold the law, not ignore it for political gain.
Arpaio’s arrogance and desire for publicity led directly to the Sheriff’s Office’s illegal profiling of Latinos. It’s those same qualities that motivated Arpaio to disregard a federal judge’s orders. Last week’s contempt hearing, which is expected to resume in June, publicly validated that Arpaio permitted unconstitutional, discriminatory practices to continue long after they should have stopped.
Once the contempt charges against Arapio and other sheriff’s office officials are resolved, the question remains whether the department can ever become a trusted law enforcement agency under its current leader.
The answer for many people in Maricopa County is no. Arpaio’s self-serving policies have so alienated Latinos that it’s hard to imagine the office’s relationship with much of the public could be repaired while he’s in power. Furthermore, Maricopa County residents continue to dole out millions to defend Arpaio’s unconstitutional and unlawful actions.
But extensive court orders relating to how the sheriff’s office does its work are changing department practices. Body cameras with strict usage guidelines will be deployed, data collection on traffic stops will help ensure unbiased policing, and a sophisticated early warning system will alert the department to problem deputies. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has started to repair policy and management problems that became ingrained in the agency during Arpaio’s tenure.
I’m optimistic the court remedies that are expected to be handed down against the sheriff and his top deputies in the coming months will serve as a wakeup call to take these reforms — and the communities they serve — seriously. Remedies and court-ordered changes are the only hope the agency has of shedding Arpaio’s corrupt culture and becoming a reputable police force.