Christmas came early for the law-abiding residents of Arizona's Maricopa County yesterday:
PHOENIX — In a strongly worded critique of the country’s best-known sheriff, the Justice Department on Thursday accused Sheriff Joe Arpaio of engaging in “unconstitutional policing” by unfairly targeting Latinos for detention and arrest and retaliating against those who complain.
After an investigation that lasted more than three years, the civil rights division of the Justice Department said in a 22-page report that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which Mr. Arpaio leads, had “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” that “reaches the highest levels of the agency.” The department interfered with the inquiry, the government said, prompting a lawsuit that eventually led Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies to cooperate.
“We have peeled the onion to its core,” said Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, noting during a conference call with reporters on Thursday morning that more than 400 inmates, deputies and others had been interviewed as part of the review, including Sheriff Arpaio and his command staff. Mr. Perez said the inquiry, which included jail visits and reviews of thousands of pages of internal documents, raised the question of whether Latinos were receiving “second-class policing services” in Maricopa County.
Mr. Perez said he hoped Sheriff Arpaio would cooperate with the federal government in turning the department around. Should he refuse to enter into a court-approved settlement agreement, Mr. Perez said, the government will file a lawsuit and the department could lose millions of dollars in federal money.
A separate federal grand jury investigation of Sheriff Arpaio’s office is continuing, focusing on accusations of abuse of power by the department’s public corruption squad.
That investigation -- unlike this probe, which involved civil law -- is a criminal matter. The other shoe has yet to drop on that score.
Arpaio, of course, claims that this is all politically motivated:
"Don't come here and use me as a whipping boy for a national, international problem," said Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The DOJ warned Arpaio to stop racially profiling Hispanic members of the community, or face the consequences. But Arpaio vowed to continue his controversial immigration sweeps.
"I took an oath of office. I'm enforcing the state and federal laws," Arpaio said.. "It's as simple as that, and I will continue to enforce those state laws."
The normally media friendly sheriff stayed away from the cameras for most of the day today. And when he did speak, it was during a late-afternoon news conference with his attorneys at his side.
"I'm going to say it again, I will continue to enforce all the laws," Arpaio said during the 40-minute news conference.
"President Obama and his band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink neon sign on the Arizona-Mexico border saying welcome to your United States," Arpaio said. "Our home is your home."
The immediate effect, as the LA Times reported, is that Arpaio and his deputies have lost their right to enforce federal immigration law, and are moreover being kicked out of Homeland Security's "Secure Communities" program:
In a statement, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said her department was ending one agreement with Arpaio’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and restricting the office’s access to another Homeland Security program.
“Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust,” Napolitano said. “DHS will not be a party to such practices. Accordingly, and effective immediately, DHS is terminating MCSO's 287(g) jail model agreement and is restricting the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office access to the Secure Communities program.”
Under the 287(g) program, Arpaio’s deputies could question jail inmates about their immigration status. Under Secure Communities, fingerprints collected by state and local police are shared with immigration authorities to identify and deport tens of thousands of people each year.
U.S. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, who represents part of Maricopa County, praised Homeland Security for terminating Maricopa County's participation in the 287(g) jail program, saying it underscored how serious the Justice Department’s findings were.
“It's been used wrongly and in a very abusive way,” Grijalva, longtime critic of the sheriff, said in an interview.
Indeed -- and those abuses raise serious questions about the programs themselves. If they give abusive law-enforcement agencies the power to substantially increase their abuse -- which was clearly the case here -- doesn't that seriously undermine the already questionable value of these programs in the first place?