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U.S. sues Arizona sheriff over alleged violations of Hispanics’ civil rights

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (Charlie Leight/AP)

It’s been a classic Old West showdown: the self-acclaimed “America’s toughest sheriff” vs. the Feds.

For years, the Justice Department has investigated Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona. In December, the department accused Arpaio of violating the civil rights of Hispanics since at least 2006 by unlawfully stopping, detaining and arresting them. Then, for months, Justice officials tried to negotiate a settlement aimed at correcting the violations. When negotiations fell through, the department threatened to sue.

Through it all, Arpaio, known for forcing inmates to dress in pink underwear and work on chain gangs, remained defiant: “I absolutely refuse to surrender my responsibility to the federal government,” the sheriff said in April. “This will not happen on my watch.”

The standoff came to a head Thursday when the Justice Department announced that it had sued Arpaio, his office and Maricopa County for civil rights violations, including what it said is the long-standing racial profiling of Latinos.

Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said he was “left with no choice.

“At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case involving Sheriff Arpaio and a sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics in a variety of unlawful ways,” Perez said at a news conference in Phoenix.

The lawsuit in an election year rachets up the department’s battle with the states over civil rights, voting rights and immigration.

The Arpaio investigation is one of 17 probes the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has conducted of police and sheriff’s departments — the most in its 54-year history. At the same time, the Civil Rights Division has blocked voter identification laws that it says harm Hispanic and African American voters in Texas.

The 32-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, alleges that Arpaio’s employees frequently used derogatory terms such as “wetback” and “stupid Mexicans” in referring to Latinos. Supervisors distributed an e-mail with a photograph of a Chihuahua in swimming gear with the caption “A Rare Photo of a Mexican Navy Seal.”

“Such words and actions exemplify the culture of bias that contributes to the unlawful actions,” Perez said.

At his own news conference Thursday, Arpaio, who has denied the profiling allegations, shot back: “I’m not going to surrender my office to the federal government. I will fight this to the bitter end. They’re using me for the Latino vote.”

Arpaio has accused the Justice Department of conducting a politically motivated investigation. He has been hailed as a folk hero by those who favor his tough tactics and his “crime sweeps” of mostly Hispanic neighborhoods.

The federal investigation of Arpaio’s department began in 2008. In December, the Justice Department issued a critical report, accusing Arpaio’s approximately 900 deputies of engaging in a “pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing” by unlawfully stopping, detaining and arresting Hispanics.

“If you looked Latino, you were all too frequently fair game for [Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] officers,” Perez said at his news conference.

Once in jail, the lawsuit said, Hispanics were denied access to basic services. When Latino prisoners didn’t follow a command in English because they couldn’t understand it, the deputies sometimes put an entire area of a jail on lockdown. On other occasions, the deputies forced Latino prisoners who spoke little English to sign legal documents printed in English, in which they forfeited important rights, the lawsuit said.

The settlement negotiations would have required a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in the department, including revised training for deputies. The negotiations fell apart in April when Arpaio refused to agree to the court monitor.

“The United States is not seeking, and has never sought, monetary damages or attorney’s fees in connection with our case,” Perez said Thursday. He said the goal was “to fix the problems” and “ensure that the necessary policies, practices and oversight are in place so that [the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] and Sheriff Arpaio comply with the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

Sari Horwitz covers the Justice Department and criminal justice issues nationwide for The Washington Post, where she has been a reporter for 30 years.

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