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Attorney accuses Florence Police, Pinal County Sheriff’s Office of racism

PHOENIX — A Washington attorney is asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Florence Police Department and the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, saying that both departments are filled with racism.

Lynne Barnabei made the request in a letter to Jonathan M. Smith, the chief of the Department of Justice’s Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division.

Barnabei claims that Florence could be the next Ferguson, Missouri, if racism inside the two departments don’t improve.

Ferguson was the scene of several recent riots over a police shooting of an African-American teenager.

Barnabei represents two former Florence police officers who are suing the city over their firing in 2012.

“Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson Vonzombie were fired as detectives because they disclosed a pattern of corruption and racism at the Florence Police Department,” Barnabei said. “This corruption and racism was ratified by both the town manager and mayor.”

The two officers say they were fired after they reported that Florence Police Lt. Terry Tryon destroyed evidence of the alleged rape of a Hispanic woman in order to protect his son. In another case, they claim that Tryon returned a firearm to a white suspect that was confiscated by Vonzombie, who is African-American. Vonzombie claims that Tryon told him that he could not “go around taking guns from every white boy in town.”

Hunter was rehired by Florence to another position. Vonzombie was not.

The letter also cites numerous other accusations involving the two departments.

It was Phoenix NAACP Chairman Rev. Oscar Tillman who convinced Barnabei to take the case. He claimed in addition to the accusations against Florence police, there have been several other recent incidents where Pinal County sheriff’s deputies have harassed minorities.

“(Paul) Babeu and his folks — and I can go back through the records and pull them (to show) how they’ve been treating people — (they’ve been) snatching people’s phones whenever they’re trying to call their parents is one of them,” said Tillman.

In another allegation, he claims that deputies were “snatching a person out of a vehicle because he had dirt on his license plate.

“Dirt in the desert on your license plate, and you snatch him out of the vehicle because you say you can’t read it?” Tillman said. “But yet, (when) you take a picture of the vehicle and (in the picture) you can see it?”

As for Florence, Tillman said he has tried to talk with city leaders about the racial issues.

“I did everything possible to try to talk to everyone from the mayor and some city council folks in Florence.”

But Tillman said his attempts haven’t done any good.

“It’s like talking to the back end of a horse,” Tillman said. “Nothing happens that comes out good.”

Florence spokesman Jess Knudson said Barnabei’s request for a Department of Justice investigation is “just for show,” and the city isn’t worried.

“We are not concerned. Although we take it seriously, we are not concerned with any outcomes that would identify us as having done anything wrong,” he said.

Knudson called claims of racial problems in Florence “ridiculous,” but Barnabei claims they have proof.

“We have documented everything that we say in the letter, which shows an overall pattern of racism within the department,” she said.

Knudson said the possibility of an investigation isn’t worrying anyone in Florence.

“If anyone wants to take a close look at the town of Florence, and how we handle ourselves, we more than welcome it,” Knudson said. “We have nothing to hide.”

As for the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Babeu issued a written statement to KTAR.

These allegations are baseless, since each case cited in the letter involving our office was investigated and reviewed by independent agencies, which found the actions of our deputies were just. It seems these lawyers always claim the race card, since it is such a sensational allegation and their best argument for a weak case. Our deputies swear an oath to fairly enforce the laws and ensure we protect the constitutional rights of every person regardless of race, color, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion or any other factor used to discriminate.”

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