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Justice Department Finally Cuffs Sheriff Joe, but Not the Policy That Made Him

Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” will cooperate with the federal government’s demands to clean up his department after a three-year investigation found rampant racial profiling and widespread discriminatory policing under his watch. But he’s not doing it without issuing a few demands of his own.

Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” will cooperate with the federal government’s demands to clean up his department after a three-year investigation found rampant racial profiling and widespread discriminatory policing under his watch. But he’s not doing it without issuing a few demands of his own.

Arpaio was up against a Wednesday deadline set forth by the Department of Justice following the release of its damning report last month. He had to either voluntarily comply with the DOJ’s proposed reforms for Maricopa County, Ariz., or face civil action, the Department of Justice told Arpaio last month. Arpaio responded pointedly, saying he would begin talks with the Department of Justice only when federal government provided “proof” he’d done something wrong.

The lengthy response from Arpaio’s attorneys all but bristles. It includes 106 separate requests for documentation of the Justice Department’s findings and claims a “dearth of facts” in the original report.

“We, too, prefer to resolve this matter without litigation, but will not cower at the threat of litigation, either,” Arpaio’s attorneys wrote to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez.

It was a classic move from the publicity-obsessed sheriff, who’s made a name for himself as an anti-immigrant hardliner so committed to detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants that he was willing to trample on the rights of citizens and non-citizens alike.

In his tenure as sheriff, Arpaio has eagerly exploited the power that the Department of Homeland Security handed him to enforce federal immigration law, through programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. The Department of Justice investigation confirmed the community’s longstanding complaints about racial profiling and a jail system that runs roughshod over inmates’ basic rights. It found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely than their non-Latino counterparts to be pulled over for traffic stops, for instance.

But Immigrant rights advocates say that the Department of Justice report calls into question more than Arpaio. They say it also indicts the immigration enforcement programs that Arpaio the Department of Homeland Security empowered him to carry out. Under 287(g) and Secure Communities, local law enforcement collaborate with federal immigration enforcement officers to screen and refer deportable immigrants who pass through local and county jails to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We all knew what Arpaio was doing,” said Carlos Garcia with the Arizona-based immigrant rights organization PUENTE, “but the most important fact was the report also condemned the ICE programs that gave Arpaio immigration enforcement powers, and that being what created the racial profiling and what created the abuse.”

Immigrant rights groups argue that DHS should stop contracting with Arpaio entirely.

“The DOJ has exposed the corrupt partnership between DHS and Sheriff Arpaio,” said Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “A precedent has been set when the Constitution is being violated and when people are being racially profiled the federal government should not be contracting with those local law enforcement agencies.”

Immediately after the DOJ released its investigation last month, DHS moved to cut off Arpaio’s participation in 287(g) and access to Secure Communities. In recent weeks the changes have not led to any substantive change on the ground, Garcia said.

According to Garcia, Arpaio’s deputies are no longer allowed to ask for a person’s immigration status upon arrest; that responsibility has been moved to ICE officers who are inside county jails. However, Arpaio’s officers still patrol the streets and stop and book people as always.

“The racial profiling doesn’t happen once people are in jail,” Garcia said. “It happens out and about when officers are in the community, and right now these officers don’t have to answer to anyone. They can bring in anyone and book them.”

Arpaio has long defended his harsh policing by saying that his federal contracts and expanding and ever more aggressive state law gave him the power to be as tough as he is, said Doris Marie Provine, a professor in the school of social transformation at Arizona State University.

“He’s always said, ‘The legislature gives me a law and I enforce it. Don’t get mad at me, get mad at the legislature,’” Provine said. “That was his position with state law and I think that’s his position here as well.”

Even if Arpaio cooperates fully and efficiently with the Department of Justice, police accountability experts caution, the road to reform is a long one. “We need to be careful in our expectations,” said Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska. “The DOJ is just talking procedural reforms here.”

The DOJ’s list of proposed reforms includes a mandate for better data tracking to curb discriminatory policing, and training for law enforcement officers and a system for the public to file complaints. They will take time to implement, and will likely not get to the root of immigrant rights advocates’ concerns.

To do that, said Uribe, the Department of Homeland Security must stop empowering local law enforcement agencies that have a proven track record of violating people’s civil rights to enforce immigration law.

“The federal government can’t have this ongoing contradiction where one federal agency is facilitating local agencies’ breaking of the law,” Uribe said.

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