The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department over allegations of discriminatory practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures.
In a letter dated Tuesday to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the department's Civil Rights Division said investigators will focus on alleged patterns of discriminatory police practices and on allegations of discrimination based on a person's national origin.
Arpaio has gained a national profile for several controversial practices, including ongoing efforts to arrest illegal immigrants in the Phoenix area.
Arpaio called the investigation unwarranted and a political situation. He defended the arrest methods of his deputies, contending they are well-trained and do not racially profile during crime sweeps.
The letter, signed by Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general, "We have not reached any conclusions about the subject matter of the investigation ... We also will offer to provide recommendations on ways to improve practices and procedures, as appropriate."
"Well, I'm not surprised," Arpaio said about the investigation. "No way do I feel this investigation is warranted. (Phoenix Mayor) Phil Gordon went to the Department of Justice about a year ago and wanted them to look into my office, and I'm sure the FBI has looked into it. The allegations are the same types that have been going on, and that we arrest dishwashers, and on and on ..."
In February, four Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate possible civil rights violations based on complaints that Arpaio's deputies are targeting people based on their skin color during neighborhood crime sweeps and raids at work sites.
Among the congressmen pushing for the investigation were: Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and chairman of the judiciary committee; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., immigration subcommittee chairwoman; Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.; and Bobby Scott, D-Va.
Last year, FBI agents were reportedly investigating racial profiling allegations in response to Gordon's request for a federal inquiry.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement also conducted an audit of how its Arizona office oversees the sheriff's immigration enforcement, but has not made its findings public.
The Government Accountability Office last week reported its investigation found that ICE has not sufficiently overseen its local immigration enforcement program, which includes the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Arpaio was steadfast in defending his office's arrest practices and told the Tribune on Tuesday he is being used as the "poster child" for the enforcement of the 287G Program that has allowed his deputies to be trained in the apprehension and arrests of illegal immigrants.
Today, Mary Rose Wilcox, who serves on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, was scheduled to appear before Congress with a petition signed by more than 35,000 people from around the nation calling for a Justice Department investigation into Arpaio's office.
"I'm not really concerned with the Department of Justice," Arpaio said. "If they want to come down, we will cooperate with them. If there's something to learn from them, we will."
The Justice Department declined comment beyond the contents of the letter sent to Arpaio's office, said spokeswoman Laura Sweeney.