Taxpayer costs over Arpaio racial profiling lawsuit to eclipse $200M

May 17, 2021, 4:00 PM | Updated: 11:28 pm
(AP Photo)...
(AP Photo)
(AP Photo)

PHOENIX (AP) — The costs to taxpayers from a racial profiling lawsuit stemming from former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration patrols in metro Phoenix a decade ago are expected to reach $202 million by summer 2022.

Officials approved a tentative county budget Monday that provides $31 million for the cost of complying with court orders in the fiscal year that begins on July 1. No one can say exactly when the costs from the 13-year-old lawsuit will start to decline.

The growth in spending “is enough to make any of us cry as we’re trying to be fiscal stewards of the county taxpayer money,” Supervisor Clint Hickman said.

Taxpayers in Arizona’s most populated county are on the hook for lawyer bills and the costs of complying with massive court-ordered overhauls of the sheriff’s office after a 2013 verdict concluded Arpaio’s officers had profiled Latinos in traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.

Arpaio, known for a tough-on-crime approach in his 24 years as sheriff that included forcing jail inmates to wear pink underwear and housing them in tents in triple-digit desert heat, targeted illegal immigration and was convicted of criminal contempt for disobeying a court order to stop his immigration patrols. His misdemeanor conviction was later pardoned by then-President Donald Trump.

The taxpayer spending is expected to continue until the Maricopa County sheriff’s office has fully complied with overhauling its traffic enforcement and internal affairs operations for three straight years.

Although some of the agency’s numbers are near or at 100%, the sheriff’s office hasn’t yet been deemed fully compliant.

Attorneys who pressed the case against the sheriff’s office have criticized the agency for traffic-stop studies since the profiling verdict showing deputies often treat drivers who are Hispanic and Black differently than other drivers, though the reports stopped short of saying Latinos were still being profiled.

The lawyers also have asked a judge to hold civil contempt-of-court hearings against Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, over a backlog of more than 1,700 internal affairs cases, each taking an average of 500 days to complete.

Penzone’s office said the funding and employees hired as part of the overhaul effort will need to remain in place once the agency is deemed fully compliant.

“Effectively, this is the new ‘standard of policing’ and the majority of this funding will need to remain in the MCSO budget,” the sheriff’s office said. “MCSO is working diligently to come into full compliance with the Court orders.”

Raul Piña, who serves on a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office, said the funding is necessary so the agency can respect the constitutional rights of Hispanic people.

“Of course, we are tired of paying, but if you are a Hispanic vehicle operator, you are tired of being racially profiled at the same time — and the agency isn’t in a rush to stop that,” Piña said.

Arpaio’s immigration patrols, known as “sweeps,” involved large numbers of sheriff’s deputies converging on an area of metro Phoenix — including some Latino neighborhoods — over the course of several days to stop traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

Arpaio led 20 of the large-scale patrols from January 2008 through October 2011. Under Arpaio’s leadership, the agency continued doing immigration enforcement in smaller, more routine traffic patrols until spring 2013, leading to his criminal conviction.

On Monday, Arpaio said he doesn’t regret carrying out the immigration patrols and contends his crackdowns still helped reduce taxpayer costs for providing education and health care to immigrants in the United States illegally.

As for the financial costs of the profiling lawsuit, Arpaio said the spending on equipment and additional employees was needed anyway to modernize the agency.

“It’s a one-side type of story they (his critics) want to push out,” Arpaio said. “Don’t blame me for the money being spent.”

Over the years, taxpayers have paid a combined $18 million in legal fees to lawyers on both sides of the case and about $20 million for a team of experts that monitors the sheriff’s office.

The overwhelming majority of the spending goes toward hiring employees to help meet the court’s requirements. Penzone’s office said there are 192 positions budgeted for compliance, though 42 of them are vacant.

The court-ordered changes also include new training for deputies on making constitutional traffic stops, establishing a warning system to identify problematic behavior, equipping deputies with body-worn cameras and interventions for deputies flagged for having statistical differences from their peers in how they have treated Latinos.

The sheriff’s office was deemed 98% compliant in a first set of requirements for reforming its traffic patrol operations and 79% compliant in meeting a second set of requirements.

The agency is faring better with an overhaul that the judge ordered for its internal affairs operations, which under Arpaio had been criticized for biased decision-making aimed at protecting officials from accountability. It met 100% of a first set of requirements and 92% of a second set.

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Taxpayer costs over Arpaio racial profiling lawsuit to eclipse $200M