Justice Dept. aids Obama campaign; Civil rights division accuses Sheriff Joe of bigotry

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The Justice Department has the long knives out for “America’s toughest sheriff,” Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

After a protracted three year investigation, DOJ announced Thursday that it had “reasonable cause to believe” that Arpaio’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has been violating the Constitution and federal law by discriminating against Latinos.

The Justice Department charges that Arpaio’s department has engaged in a pattern of “discriminatory policing practices” that target Latinos for detention and arrest, retaliate against critics of the office’s practices and discriminate against Latino inmates.

“MCSO’s systematic disregard for basic constitutional protections has created a wall of distrust between the sheriff’s office and large segments of the community, which dramatically compromises the ability to protect and serve the people,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, in a statement.

“The problems are deeply rooted in MCSO’s culture, and are compounded by MCSO’s penchant for retaliation against individuals who speak out,” said Perez.

In addition to the broader charges, Arpaio received an extra look in the report, which charged that he circulated racially charged missives — adding to a “culture of bias.”

“For example, Sheriff Arpaio received a letter asking him to do a ‘round-up’ at 29th Street and Greenway in Phoenix,” the report says. “The letter justified the requested police action by asserting that ‘[i]fyou have dark skin, then you have dark skin. Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegals who are here illegally.’ Instead of ignoring the request to focus on ‘dark-skin[ ned]’ people, Sheriff Arpaio, believing that the letter was relevant ‘intelligence,’ passed it on to a member of his command staff with a note instructing him to ‘[h]ave someone handle this.'”

Apart from the civil rights investigation, since 2009 a federal grand jury has also been probing alleged abuses of power by the department’s public corruption squad.

Following the report’s release, the Department of Homeland Security decided to end its 287(g) jail model agreement with the county and restrict its access to the Secure Communities program.

“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is troubled by the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) findings of discriminatory policing practices within the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust. DHS will not be a party to such practices,” said Secretary Janet Napolitano in a statement, adding that DHS will continue to enforce immigration laws in the county.

The investigation, conducted by the Justice Department’s Special Litigation Section and the Federal Coordination and Compliance Section of the Civil Rights Division, consisted of interviews with over 400 individuals, including 75 current and former MCSO supervisors and deputies, including Sheriff Arpaio, and 150 former and current inmates.

Perez expressed hope that Arpaio would implement reforms and resolve concerns outlined in the report.  If Arpaio refuses, Perez said he would “not hesitate to take appropriate legal action.”

In recent years Arpaio has emerged as a national political figure, especially in the fight against illegal immigration and over Arizona’s SB 1070. After being courted by the majority of the GOP presidential field, Arpaio endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for president.

Following release of the Justice Department’s report, Perry told Fox News host Neil Cavuto that Arpaio was being unfairly persecuted.

“I do know this. Nothing surprises me out of this administration,” Perry said. “I would suggest to you that these people are out after Sheriff Joe. He is tough. And, again, when I am president of the United States you’re not going to see me going after states like Arizona or Alabama.”

Arpaio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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