Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is well accustomed to working under a spotlight — literally and figuratively. Constant scrutiny has also become commonplace at the sheriff’s office.
Federal investigators have been examining deputies’ anti-illegal immigration enforcement for most of the past year.
However, the probes announced this week are far different from their predecessors. They are taking place in full public view and, should the FBI find violations, the federal government can impose restrictions on how the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office operates, a first for a police agency that regularly boasts its independence.
“It changes the tenor and content of the investigation,” said Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney for Arizona, “and it signals that there’s a new administration who has decided to dedicate a significant amount of resources to this issue.”
The U.S. Justice Department launched a new civil rights investigation of MCSO on Tuesday. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Michigan and chairman of the House judiciary committee, on Wednesday announced plans to hold congressional hearings on local immigration enforcement and call Arpaio as a witness in the coming months.
MCSO has targeted human smugglers, their cargo and day laborers for three years. Deputies have arrested roughly 1,000 illegal immigrants in that time and attracted a horde of racial profiling allegations.
Last year’s investigations by the FBI, the Government Accountability Office and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were largely kept quiet.
The FBI would not even publicly acknowledge its probe. ICE audited MCSO’s immigration enforcement program as well as the federal agency’s Arizona office oversight of deputies’ work in September, but has refused to release its findings.
“It’s been a year. Nothing’s happened,” Arpaio said of the earlier FBI probe.
The Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability held numerous demonstrations at the county Board of Supervisors meetings last year in a largely vain attempt to increase scrutiny of MCSO immigration enforcement.
But with President Barack Obama’s inauguration, and more specifically his nominating Eric Holder as U.S. Attorney General, the federal government is heeding community activists’ calls for extensive investigation of Arpaio’s office.
Holder told congress during his confirmation hearing that “safeguarding our precious civil rights” will be one of his chief concerns as the nation’s chief law enforcer, right after fighting terrorism and protecting public safety.
Raquel Teran, project director of the citizens group, said the political and public responses to their concerns have been stark.
“Things are different colors now,” Teran said from Washington D.C., where she was attending a Conyers’ press conference announcing the planned hearings.
Arpaio said this round of inquiry is simply a rehash of the same racial profiling allegations his office has long denied.
Further, he now plans to skip the hearings, arguing that he doesn’t need Congress to attract an audience. Arpaio regularly makes his case defending his deputies’ illegal immigrant arrests on the major cable news shows, like “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on CNN.
“I don’t know that it’s a big stage, if you call C-SPAN big,” Arpaio said. “I’ve been before Congress before. They have hearings every hour, on the hour. This is nothing different.”
The justice department’s investigation is under civil law, which means that it is not pursuing criminal complaints against MCSO officials. However, a finding of police misconduct can prompt the federal government to dictate changes to the police departments’ practices and policies.
“When they do take place, they’re a no-kidding look at what the law enforcement agency is doing,” said Charlton, the top federal prosecutor in Arizona from 2001 to 2006 and an Arpaio critic.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fired Charlton along with eight other U.S. Attorneys as part of a controversial justice department purge.
Conyers’ office is inviting the sheriff to attend and hasn’t yet considered whether to seek a subpoena to secure Arpaio’s testimony.
“He hasn’t communicated anything directly to us,” said Jonathon Gottfried, a Conyers spokesman.
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is important beyond Arpaio’s outsized persona and controversial immigration enforcement operations.
MCSO has by far the largest contingent of officers trained and cross-designated as federal immigration officers in addition to being deputies. A hundred sheriff’s detectives and deputies have federal powers to enforce immigration law, most importantly the authority to question people’s legal residency with little probable cause. MCSO has 60 detention officers that ICE trained as well as access to the federal illegal immigrant database.
ICE partnered with the sheriff’s office in early 2007 as part of the “287(g)” program, named after the section of federal law that created it.
That program, which is the focus of the upcoming congressional hearing, permits ICE-trained local officers to act as federal agents.
Of course, the sheriff’s operations themselves are of particular interest to federal investigators.
MCSO started its own immigration enforcement work in March 2006 with patrols of rural roadways popular with human smugglers. Then, in October 2007 and early 2008, the sheriff’s office launched massive crackdowns targeting day laborers in Hispanic neighborhoods.
A Tribune investigation, published in July, found the operations were conducted without evidence of criminal activity, in violation of federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling.
Deputies used their federal authority extensively in these operations, commonly referred to as “sweeps,” as MCSO sent its SWAT team and K-9 unit to arrest illegal immigrants.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas issued the sheriff’s office legal advice regarding how to conduct such operations within constitutional limitations.
“To my knowledge, he has followed that legal advice,” Thomas said. The county attorney noted that Arpaio sought legal advice after MCSO had already conducted multiple operations.
Thomas said he believes the justice department investigation is a “good faith” effort to assess MCSO’s immigration work.
Arpaio said he isn’t so sure.
“If they had a big problem, why didn’t they do this last year?” Arpaio said.
The previous administration did not make such law enforcement investigations a priority, Charlton said.
Past investigations took place in the background.
“The folks in Washington are telling you, 'Yes, you should do an investigation. But treat it as you would any of the other 150 investigations you have going on,’” Charlton said of how inquiries of MCSO likely began previously.
“On the other hand, if they tell you, 'Unless you have a terrorism case that you’re working on, this is the case you will be working on,’” he said, “it’s a much different message.”