The actions against America’s self-styled “toughest sheriff” highlighted the Obama administration’s increasingly aggressive enforcement of civil rights laws in areas including police brutality and voting rights.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is conducting 20 probes of police and sheriff departments — the most in its 54-year history. And this week, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. vowed to fully enforce civil rights protections in the run-up to the elections amid Republican-led efforts to tighten state voting laws.
Arpaio is a former D.C. police officer and the longtime sheriff of Maricopa County; he has come to embody the national divide over illegal immigration. In its report, the Justice Department said he had created a “wall of distrust” with Hispanics by targeting them for arrest and retaliating against those who criticized his methods. The sheriff’s deputies, it found, were four to nine times as likely to stop Hispanic drivers as non-Hispanics. Arpaio strongly denied the allegations.
“We found discriminatory policing that was deeply rooted in the culture of the department,’’ said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights. He vowed to work with Maricopa, which includes Phoenix, in implementing reforms, but if the sheriff refuses to cooperate, Perez threatened a civil lawsuit or steps to curtail the millions of dollars in federal funding the department has received over the past several years.
A separate criminal investigation of Arpaio’s department is continuing, federal officials said. Sources familiar with that inquiry have said a federal grand jury in Phoenix is examining whether Arpaio used his power to investigate and intimidate political opponents and whether his office misappropriated government money.
The report on the civil rights probe, which began in 2008 and is continuing, could heighten tensions over the bitterly divisive issue of illegal immigration ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Once seen as a quirky figure who made inmates wear pink underwear, Arpaio has in recent years become a kind of folk hero to those who favor his heavily publicized “crime sweeps,” mostly in Hispanic neighborhoods.
Arpaio and his attorneys have long denied any racial profiling and derided the Justice Department investigations as politically motivated. In his typically pugnacious style, the sheriff on Thursday blasted the report as “a sad day for America as a whole.’’
“Don’t come here and use me as the whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said at a news conference, according to the Associated Press. “We are going to cooperate the best we can. And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.’’