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Federal judge greenlights contempt hearing against Sheriff Paul Penzone

(AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX (AP) — A federal judge said Thursday that he will hold a contempt of court hearing against the sheriff of metro Phoenix in the same racial profiling case that led to contempt rulings against his predecessor, Joe Arpaio.

Sheriff Paul Penzone has a week to decide whether to contest arguments that he should be held in civil contempt over his huge backlog of internal affairs cases or whether to acknowledge that he is in contempt and work to remedy the problems.

The lawyers who won the racial profiling case eight years ago say Penzone is out of compliance 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. The court requires the sheriff’s office to complete the investigations within 60 or 85 days, depending on which operation within the agency handles the cases.

Commenting on Penzone’s written response to the call for a contempt hearing, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow said: “Even if I accept everything as true — which I don’t — I would hold the sheriff in contempt.”

Snow said it would be more reasonable to focus on remedying the backlog and related problems in a bid to bring the agency into compliance for the first time, rather than wasting time arguing over whether Penzone is in compliance.

“The money is far better spent on a remedy,” the judge said.

One possible remedy mentioned by the judge: Imposing a monthly fine against Maricopa County until it comes into compliance — and using the proceeds to hire more internal affairs employees.

“We know we have work to do, and we are doing it, and we would like to continue our efforts in that direction,” Mary O’Grady, one of Penzone’s attorneys, told the judge.

Penzone’s office declined a request to comment on the hearing.

The contempt hearing hasn’t yet been scheduled.

During his last year in office, Arpaio was found in civil contempt for disobeying a 2011 order by Snow to stop his traffic patrols targeting immigrants.

Once out of office, he was convicted of criminal contempt for prolonging the patrols, but he was spared a possible jail sentence for the misdemeanor conviction thanks to a 2017 pardon from then-President Donald Trump. Arpaio’s defiance in the profiling case contributed significantly to his election defeat after 24 years in office.

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.

A 2013 profiling verdict against Arpaio’s office led to two court-ordered overhauls of the agency, one of its traffic enforcement division and another of its internal affairs operation, which under Arpaio had been criticized for biased decision-making and shielding sheriff’s officials from accountability.

The judge stripped the sheriff’s office 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 a court official who is monitoring the sheriff’s office on behalf of Snow. More training was required for supervisors. And the sheriff’s office is required to investigate all complaints of officer misconduct, even those made anonymously.

In trying to fend off a contempt hearing, Penzone’s attorney had previously said in court records that the sheriff’s office made warnings about the backlog to court officials, but its suggestions for fixing the problem were rejected. They said the agency is committed to complying with the overhaul and that its efforts to close those cases were outpaced by an increasing number of new complaints.

The U.S. Justice Department and attorneys who filed the profiling lawsuit argued that the length of the investigations has resulted in lost evidence that makes it more likely that officer misconduct won’t be confronted.

They also pointed out that a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office has said it’s questionable whether it should encourage people to file complaints when the process is so flawed, according to court records.

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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