Sheriff Penzone calls contempt finding ‘scarlet letter,’ says MCSO in better place now
PHOENIX – Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone said Wednesday that a civil contempt finding against him in a profiling case tied to the man he succeeded was an undeserved “scarlet letter.”
A federal judge on Tuesday found Penzone to be in civil contempt of court for noncompliance in the same racial profiling case in which his predecessor, Joe Arpaio, was found to be in contempt six years earlier.
“I will say this, me personally: the idea that you’re tattooing me with a scarlet letter in the same way as my predecessor who was violating people’s civil rights and racially profiling and doing all those things? This is not your father’s sheriff’s office,” Penzone said on KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Arizona’s Morning News.
“I respect the court but I disagree with the court.”
A federal court-ordered overhaul of the office’s internal affairs bureau, which has a backlog of 2,100 investigations, each taking an average of more than 600 days to complete.
The court requires those investigations to be completed with 60 to 85 days, depending on which operation within the agency handles the case.
“[The office] is a hell of a lot better and the men and women are doing a great job and this is not a reflection of who we are,” Penzone said.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow wrote that the sheriff didn’t demonstrate that he had taken reasonable steps to comply with the order and added despite Penzone’s knowledge of it, the backlog was getting worse.
Penzone said more than 5,000 complaints have been investigated during that mandated time frame and that staff looks into each allegation.
“Whether it is anonymous, whether it’s accurate, whether it’s from a former employee, whether it’s about a former employee, [they’re] are all investigated to a volume that is far more substantial than any other organization,” he said.
“There’s like a 250-point checklist for every single investigation. I’m not happy about how long they’re taking but I don’t want people to confuse that with them not getting done.”
Case priorities change, he said.
“It’s a triage situation. If I have something where an employee tomorrow does something egregious, that case goes to the front of the line.
Something less substantial suddenly gets pushed back, he said, “because either I’m going to fire somebody or suspend them. That’s a priority.”
Penzone said he was committed to public safety but that in no way diminished his commitment to meeting the court orders.
“You look at the circumstances: we went from a 5% vacancy ratio to 25% due to COVID and some other issues. We’re being asked to do more like guard recorder’s offices, handle protests, deal with the fentanyl issue, work with issues in the jail and … to do more focus on internal investigations and external crimes.
“Some people go, ‘oh, that’s an excuse, sheriff. ‘ It’s not. That’s the reality,” Penzone said.
The judge threatened yet-to-be-determined monthly fines against Maricopa County and would put the proceeds toward hiring more internal affairs employees.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.