The US’ self-proclaimed toughest sheriff is fast approaching a crossroads where he must decide either to settle claims that his officers racially profiled Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols — and overhaul his practices — or take his chances at trial.
Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces an April 14 deadline for concluding talks with the US Department of Justice to settle a wide range of civil rights allegations, including that the sheriff launched some immigration patrols based on letters from people who complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish, but never reporting an actual crime.
The sheriff has become nationally known for his tough stance against illegal immigration.
A settlement could lead to changes long sought by Arpaio’s critics and short-circuit a separate racial profiling case set for trial this summer. Most police agencies facing similar pressures from the Justice Department opt to settle, but critics wonder whether the sheriff’s stubborn streak — a quality that endears him to his supporters — will lead him to confront the allegations in court.
“It makes him a hero,” said Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix, Arizona, civil rights attorney and member of a group of Latino and black American leaders calling for an overhaul of Arpaio’s policies. “We have a different character as a sheriff.”
The department says Arpaio’s office has racially profiled Latinos, punished Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish and has a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights.
The sheriff’s office has denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing and asked federal authorities to provide facts. However, it also conditionally agreed to talk with the department about ways to correct any violations.
The department is seeking an agreement that would require the sheriff’s office to train officers in how to make constitutional traffic stops, collect data on people arrested in traffic stops and reach out to Latinos to ensure them that police are there to also protect them.
The federal agency has said it is prepared to sue Arpaio and let a judge decide the matter if no agreement can be worked out. Earlier in the three-year investigation, the department filed a lawsuit in 2010 against the sheriff, saying that his office refused to fully cooperate with a request for records and access to jails and employees. The case was settled last summer after the sheriff’s office handed over records and gave access to employees and jails.
After his lawyers attended a negotiation session in early February, Arpaio’s office said both sides agreed to work on an agreement and were committed to avoiding unnecessary litigation.
The status of negotiations since the February meeting is unknown. Arpaio’s lawyers did not return messages seeking comment and the department declined to provide an update, other than saying negotiations are continuing.
Arpaio said he did not know how the case would be resolved, but that his lawyers are trying to cooperate.
“We’ll just have to look at the big picture and see what they want and see if we agree to it,” Arpaio said. “I presume that if we don’t agree, they’ll go to court.”
Separate from the department’s allegations, a lawsuit that says Arpaio’s deputies racially profiled Latinos in immigration patrols is scheduled for a July 19 trial in federal court.