Sheriff Joe Arpaio Allegedly Not Only Harrassed Latinos But Ignored Crime

A new civil rights complaint, filed by the Justice Department, reveals just how badly the Arizona lawman abused his power. It should be required reading at the Supreme Court.

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio oversees the movement of 200 convicted illegal immigrants as they are handcuffed together (AP)

Before the United States Supreme Court issues its ruling in Arizona v. United States, the justices should take a few minutes to read the Justice Department's new civil rights complaint filed Thursday against Maricopa County and its notorious sheriff, Joe Arpaio. In fact, there ought to be a constitutional requirement that the justices do so before they finally tell us what they think about the core provisions of Arizona's anti-immigrant statute, SB 1070.

The allegations in the federal document are appalling -- and it's hard to get through them without at least thinking about what the enforcement of SB 1070 might be like if the Court permits the state to expand its power to arrest its resident Latino population. What is the value of Arizona's in-court assurances that it will respect the constitutional rights of these people when the federal government itself is alleging such risible proof of how bad things are today?

Here, for example, from paragraph 4 of the complaint, is how the feds describe the extent of official prejudice in Maricopa County:

The Defendants' violations of the Constitution and laws of the United States are the product of a culture of disregard in MCSO for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization. MCSO jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," and "stupid Mexicans." MCSO supervisors involved in immigration enforcement have expressed anti-Latino bias, in one instance widely distributing an email that included a photograph of a Chihuahua dog dressed in swimming gear with the caption "A Rare Photo of a Mexican Navy Seal." MCSO and Arpaio's words and actions set the tone and create a culture of bias that contributes to unlawful actions.

I understand that the (alleged) bad acts of one sheriff in one county shouldn't be held against the rest of Arizona's law enforcement officials. I acknowledge that Maricopa County is the outlier here. Leaving aside the civil rights problem for the moment, during Arpaio's recent reign, the county has spent about $6 million (and counting) in legal fees to defend itself against a stream of allegations of fiscal misconduct. There are, by last count, $177 million in claims filed against it.

But what does SB 1070 do? It gives Sheriff Arpaio, and every other local lawman, more legal authority and the discretion to aggressively pursue Latinos they suspect may be here illegally. Why would anyone believe that Arizona today spends the time and money it needs to educate its local law enforcement officials about how to constitutionally treat the Latino suspects in its custody? The justices in Washington should hold no illusions: SB 1070 sends a message of succor to officials like Sheriff Arpaio.
"Attrition Through Enforcement" is Governor Jan Brewer's official battle cry. The idea is that by harassing resident Latinos the state will force its illegal immigrants to return to Mexico. In truth, however,  the state's slogan ought to be: "We Are So Concerned With Illegal Immigration That We Are Blowing Off Enforcement of Violent Crime." Because that's the gravamen of the federal complaint. Here are paragraphs 83-86 of the complaint against Arpaio and company:

83. MCSO has focused its most intensive law enforcement efforts on low-level immigration offenses over more serious crime from approximately 2006 to the present. MCSO's prioritization of immigration enforcement has resulted in a failure to meet its other law enforcement responsibilities, and provides further evidence of the Defendants' intent to discriminate against Latinos.

84. Statistical reports show an increase in violent crime in Maricopa County, and of homicides in particular, during the period of enhanced immigration enforcement.

85. MCSO has failed, for example, to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence, including allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of girls, thus exposing women and girls, who constitute the majority of victims of crimes of sexual violence in Maricopa County, to a disproportionate risk of physical and psychological harm.

86. Faced with such an increase in crime and the risk of harm presented by unaddressed sexual assaults, a law enforcement agency ordinarily would be expected to prioritize more serious offenses, such as crimes of sexual violence, over less serious offenses, such as low-level immigration offenses.

It doesn't get more basic than that, does it? The federal government has just accused Maricopa County of abdicating the most basic function of law enforcement -- protecting people from violent crime. To what extent would the national debate over immigration change if Americans, and women in particular, were to learn about the ramifications of this allegation: did you know that these cops hate illegal immigrants more than they love protecting you from "rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of girls?"

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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