NEW: "They're using me for the Latino vote," Arpaio says of the lawsuit
The sheriff's office has not complied with the findings, Justice Department says
Arpaio's actions have nurtured culture of racial bias against Latinos, U.S. says
Arpaio denies discrimination; sheriff's attorney calls investigation a "witch hunt"
The sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, lashed out Thursday at Justice Department officials, calling their civil lawsuit alleging civil rights violations against him and his county politically motivated.
“They’re using me for the Latino vote, showing that they’re doing something, taking on the sheriff over an alleged racial profiling,” Joe Arpaio told reporters in Phoenix.
He vowed to defend himself, not for selfish purposes, but to help the thousands of other sheriffs in the country avoid finding themselves in similar situations. “I’m not going to surrender my office to the federal government,” he said. “I will fight this to the bitter end.”
Arpaio rejected the Department of Justice’s call for monitors to oversee the workings of his department. “That shows you they want to take over this office,” he said. “Under this agreement with the so-called monitor, I’d probably have to clear every press release before I go public, especially having to do with illegal immigration, with the Department of Justice.”
Arpaio’s remarks came hours after the Justice Department filed the civil lawsuit.
“At its core, this is an abuse-of-power case involving a sheriff and sheriff’s office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety, and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez.
The Justice Department had delivered in December a report with findings of civil rights violations and sought to fix them through a negotiated settlement with Maricopa County and its sheriff’s office. Those talks broke down in February over Maricopa’s refusal to consider any agreement that involved an independent monitor, Perez said.
“Attempts to forge solutions to address the serious civil rights and public safety concerns have proven elusive,” Perez said.
According to the civil complaint, the sheriff’s office has displayed a pattern of discrimination against Latinos, which includes racial profiling, unlawful detention and searches, and unlawful targeting of Latinos during raids.
The complaint also alleges that Maricopa detention officers discriminated against Latino prisoners in the jail. The targets were often prisoners who don’t speak English well, Perez said. The jailers would give orders only in English, and when the prisoners didn’t understand, they would place an entire area of the jail on lockdown for disobedience.
“This incites obvious and unwarranted hostility toward the inmates, potentially placing prisoners and officers alike in harm’s way,” Perez said.
Finally, the complaint recounts a number of cases in which Arpaio and his office allegedly retaliated against perceived enemies. These included judges, lawyers and community leaders who were critical, or perceived to be critical of Maricopa policies.
“Nobody is above the law, and nobody can misuse the legal process to silence those with different opinions,” Perez said. “Leadership starts at the top, and all of the alleged violations outlined in the complaint are the product of a culture of disregard for basic rights within MCSO that starts at the top and pervades the organization.”
The December letter said detention officers in Arpaio’s jail invoked slurs and profanities against Latinos, calling them “wetbacks,” “Mexican bitches” and “stupid Mexicans.”
Arpaio has denied any discrimination, and one of his attorneys called the Justice Department investigation a “witch hunt.”