Judge to mull contempt request against Maricopa County’s Penzone

Jun 2, 2021, 6:00 PM

Paul Penzone (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)...

Paul Penzone (Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

(Flickr/Gage Skidmore)

PHOENIX (AP) — A judge is scheduled to hear arguments Thursday over whether the sheriff of metro Phoenix, like his predecessor Joe Arpaio, should face a contempt of court of hearing in a longstanding racial profiling case against the sheriff’s office.

The lawyers who won the racial profiling case eight years ago are now arguing Sheriff Paul Penzone should face a civil contempt hearing for not complying with a court-ordered overhaul of his agency’s much-criticized internal affairs operation, which has a backlog of 1,800 cases, each taking an average of 500 days to complete.

They say Penzone is out of compliance with a requirement that internal investigations be completed within 60 or 85 days, depending upon which operation within the agency handles the cases.

It’s unclear what sort of penalties Penzone could face if the court agrees to hold a hearing and finds him in civil contempt. Generally, the punishments for civil contempt are fines, though on rare occasions jail time is given to those who refuse a judge’s order to provide information or take action.

During his last year as sheriff in 2016, Arpaio was found in civil contempt for ignoring a 2011 court order to stop his traffic patrols targeting immigrants. After the six-term Republican sheriff was ousted by the Democratic Penzone, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for disobeying the order. He was spared a possible jail sentence for the misdemeanor conviction thanks to a 2017 pardon by then-President Donald Trump.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow concluded in 2013 that sheriff’s officers had racially profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s traffic patrols that targeted immigrants who were in the United States illegally. As a remedy to the verdict, Snow ordered two overhauls of the agency, one of its traffic enforcement division and another its internal affairs operation, which had been criticized for biased decision-making under Arpaio that shielded sheriff’s officials from accountability.

The court stripped the agency of some of its autonomy over internal affairs. Transfers of employees in and out the internal affairs unit are now required to be approved by an official who monitors the sheriff’s office on behalf of the court. More training was required for supervisors. And the sheriff’s office is required to investigate all complaints of officer misconduct, even those made anonymously.

Late last week, Penzone asked the judge to make changes to the internal affairs overhaul that the sheriff contends would reduce the backlog by about 40%.

“The modifications proposed here may not solve the caseload problem completely, but they will help significantly and will also focus MCSO’s internal investigative resources where they are needed most,” the sheriff’s lawyers wrote in in a filing Friday.

Penzone has proposed giving his internal affairs commander the power to decline to investigate complaints of misconduct that occurred more than a year ago or complaints brought against employees who no longer work at the agency.

He wants the commander to be able to close investigations when those making complaints are uncooperative with authorities, set a 180-day deadline for completing investigations, and let supervisors resolve allegations of minor misconduct through interventions by supervisors, rather than conducting investigations in such cases.

Cecillia Wang, one of the attorneys who won the profiling verdict, said the agency’s internal affairs system has gotten steadily worse under Penzone. “What we have is a system at MCSO where if a Maricopa County resident has a complaint against a deputy, they have no reason to be confident that their complaint will be heard in a timely and efficient manner,” Wang said.

Penzone defeated Arpaio in late 2016 on a promise to turn the page on the problems created his predecessor, who was voted out of office after he was found in civil contempt for disobeying a judge’s order an order to stop his immigration patrols.

Although some of the agency’s numbers are near or at 100%, the sheriff’s office hasn’t yet been deemed fully compliant with either of the court-ordered overhauls of its operations.

The compliance and legal costs for taxpayers in metro Phoenix from the profiling case are expected to reach $202 million by the summer of 2022. Much of spending goes toward hiring employees to help meet the court’s requirements.

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Judge to mull contempt request against Maricopa County’s Penzone