Justice Department officials have had some tough words for Sheriff Joe Arpaio in recent months. They’ve accused him of civil rights abuses, threatened him with a lawsuit and leaked angry letters saying that they’ve run out of patience with him.
But amid it all, some of the very people the Justice Department claims to speak for in their civil rights probe of the Arizona lawman have told TPM they have little faith the federal government will come through for them. Not even a massive lawsuit, they said, will ease their skepticism.
“We’ve been frustrated with the pace of it from the beginning,” said Salvador Reza, a longtime immigrant rights activist in Phoenix. “Even if they file a civil rights lawsuit, you’re still talking about months, years.”
Reza was one of the people whose case was highlighted in a report released by the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division in December.
The report identified him only by the pseudonym “C.C.,” but it said he was arrested without cause by Arpaio’s deputies in July 2010 as retaliation for organizing protests against the sheriff.
Investigators with the civil rights division began looking into Arpaio’s office in 2008 under then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey. The probe started after DOJ received complaints that the sheriff’s office was abusing the civil rights of Latinos in the Phoenix area, in part because swarms of deputies were being sent into heavily Latino areas on what Arpaio called “crime suppression operations.”
In the four years since, federal investigators have been in contact with various Latino leaders and victims of the alleged abuses. They have also been spotted at court hearings on other matters in which Arpaio and his allies have taken the witness stand.
But while officials in Washington, D.C., continue to talk about what should be done, the Latinos living in Arpaio’s Maricopa County say nothing much has changed since the investigation began. Immigration raids are continuing. Racial profiling is still rampant, they said. They still see the effects of the sheriff’s alleged abuses on a daily basis.
“For us on the ground, we see the discrimination and the abuse of power,” said Randy Parraz, a community organizer and immigrant rights activist. “All of these people who are in power and can hold him accountable haven’t done it.”
Last year, Parraz organized the successful recall election of then-state Senate President Russell Pearce, the primary sponsor of Arizona’s tough immigration law known as SB 1070.
This year, Parraz is trying to win at the ballot box again. He and his group, Citizens for a Better Arizona, are registering voters and searching for a challenger to stop Arpaio from winning a sixth term in November.
“We’re not sitting back waiting on the federal government on this,” Parraz said. “They move at a pace that’s not conducive to the situation.”
Ever since Justice Department officials publicly accused Arpaio of civil rights violations in December, they have been trying to convince him to voluntarily make sweeping changes to his office. The negotiations have not gone well.
Each side has expressed frustration with the other. Arpaio and his attorneys complained that Justice Department officials have not given them enough evidence of the alleged abuses. In turn, DOJ officials have said Arpaio is dragging his feet and simply trying to delay the inevitable.
Throughout it, DOJ officials have continued to threaten Arpaio with a massive civil rights lawsuit if he refuses to change. The latest threat came last week, but so far no lawsuit has been filed.
Alongside the civil investigation, the Justice Department is also running a criminal probe that has been going on for years. The probe is said to be looking at many of the same issues as the civil probe but with a number of other allegations also in the mix. It reportedly includes allegations that Arpaio targeted his fellow government officials in Maricopa County with criminal investigations because he saw them as political enemies.
One of Arpaio’s close allies, a former prosecutor who teamed up with Arpaio for the crusade, was disbarred last week because of it. In its ruling, the disciplinary panel behind the punishment said Arpaio and ex-prosecutor Andrew Thomas had likely committed crimes in the process.
Despite that, the Justice Department has yet to act in its own criminal probe.
Latino activist and former Arizona lawmaker Alfredo Gutierrez said he believes one of the reasons the federal government has delayed taking action for years is because it helped facilitate Arpaio’s abuses in the first place.
The Department of Homeland Security, he notes, originally gave the sheriff’s office the authority to arrest people for immigration violations under a program known as 287(g). With lax oversight, he said, Arpaio was allowed to use the authority to target Latinos in the Phoenix area.
“They were complicit,” he said. “This administration, the Department of Homeland Security were complicit.”
In December, the government revoked Arpaio’s federal immigration powers after the civil rights report was released, but for Gutierrez it was too late. The damage was already done.
Now, he believes the Obama administration is moving forward with cases against the sheriff because the president needs to win the Latino vote in November. Like other Latino leaders, Gutierrez said the cases have been too slow coming and will likely take too long to resolve.
“I doubt that they can take actions to reignite hope in our community,” Gutierrez said.
Whether the cases will come at all is still to be seen.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com