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Originally published December 15, 2011 at 7:49 PM | Page modified December 15, 2011 at 7:49 PM

Civil-rights abuses alleged in Arizona sheriff's office

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Phoenix-based department repeatedly arrested Latinos illegally, abused them in county jails and failed to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults, the Justice Department charged Thursday after a three-year civil-rights investigation.

Tribune Washington bureau

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WASHINGTON — Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Phoenix-based department repeatedly arrested Latinos illegally, abused them in county jails and failed to investigate hundreds of sexual assaults, the Justice Department charged Thursday after a three-year civil-rights investigation.

Justice officials are expected to ask a federal judge to order changes in the department run by Arpaio, 79, who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff" for his illegal-immigration stance.

The Department of Homeland Security quickly revoked Maricopa County jail officers' authority to detain people on immigration charges, meaning they cannot continue to hold such violators who are not charged with local crimes.

Arpaio said at a televised news conference that he would try to cooperate, but that "if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court." He criticized the findings as "a sad day for America as a whole."

"Don't come here and use me as a whipping boy for a national and international problem," the sheriff said. "We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration."

The probe is one of 20 similar federal investigations under way nationwide by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division — "more than any time in the division's history," Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said. Among them are probes of the Seattle and Portland police departments.

Perez, in a letter of warning to Maricopa County officials, said "deputies, detention officers, supervisory staff and command staff, including Sheriff Arpaio, have engaged in a widespread pattern or practice of law enforcement and jail activities that discriminate against Latinos."

Perez described Latinos arrested on unreasonable traffic stops, businesses raided when Latinos gather out front, inmates mocked with racial epithets, and 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation, often involving Latinos, that "were not properly investigated over a three-year period."

One Latino intentionally was hit and dragged by a patrol car, with instructions for other deputies to "leave him there," prosecutors said. A Latino motorist was incarcerated for 13 days for not using his turn signal. Emails written by deputies caricatured Mexicans as being from "Mexifornia," and deputies derided Latino inmates as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," "stupid Mexicans" and unprintable epithets.

The Justice Department said Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than whites, and asserted that deputies "treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented."

If Arpaio is not interested in making drastic changes, Perez warned, "we are prepared to file a civil action to compel compliance." A federal criminal investigation of the department's public-corruption unit is continuing.

Arpaio, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent, first was elected sheriff in 1992 and has remained popular, particularly among conservative illegal-immigration hawks. Voters in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix and is home to 3.8 million people, re-elected him in 2008 with about 55 percent of the vote.

The county has been particularly troubled by illegal immigration. The Justice Department warning letter noted violent crime rose by 69 percent between 2004 and 2007, including a 166 percent increase in homicides. Arpaio has responded by housing inmates in tents, clothing them in pink underwear and serving green and blue meat.

Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the department couldn't be reformed unless Arpaio stepped down. "He's the one who made himself a national figure by violating people's rights," Grijalva said.

Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who represented two local officials who butted heads with Arpaio, only to face retaliation, said: "If not for the federal government, this county would be run like a fiefdom."

There have been recent signs that Arizonans are weary of Arpaio's approach to illegal immigration. Arpaio ally Russell Pearce, president of the state Senate and author of SB 1070, the state's tough law targeting illegal immigrants for deportation, failed to push through a raft of anti-illegal-immigration bills this year. In November, Pearce was booted from office in a recall election.

The group that targeted Pearce, Citizens for a Better Arizona, has turned its focus to Arpaio.

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