Ariz. sheriff faces crossroads in civil rights case
America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff is fast approaching a crossroads where he must decide either to settle claims that his officers racially profiled Latinos in his trademark immigration patrols — and overhaul his practices — or take his chances at trial.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces an April 14 deadline for concluding talks with the U.S. Justice Department to settle a wide range of civil rights allegations, including that the sheriff launched some immigration patrols based on letters from people who complained about people with dark skin congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish but never reporting an actual crime. The sheriff has become nationally known for his tough stance against illegal immigration.
A settlement could lead to changes long sought by Arpaio’s critics and short-circuit a separate racial profiling case set for trial this summer. Most police agencies facing similar pressures from the Justice Department opt to settle, but critics wonder whether the sheriff’s stubborn streak — a quality that endears him to his supporters — will lead him to confront the allegations in court.
“It makes him a hero,” said Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix civil rights attorney and member of a group of Latino and black leaders calling for an overhaul of Arpaio’s policies. “We have a different character as a sheriff.”
The Justice Department has accused Arpaio’s office of racially profiling Latinos, punishing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish and having a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights. The sheriff’s office has denied allegations of systematic discriminatory policing, and asked federal authorities to provide facts. But it also conditionally agreed to talk with the Justice Department about ways to correct any violations.
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