AP Exclusive: 1,800-case internal affairs lag in Phoenix

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is shown at an Aug. 12, 2020, news conference at his office in Phoenix. A court-appointed official has criticized Penzone's efforts to reduce a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs case against his officers and complained the sheriff hasn't heeded his team's suggestions for chipping away at the backlog. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud) (Jacques Billeaud, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

PHOENIX – The sheriff's department in metro Phoenix, which for years has been the target of criticism, is again under fire after a review found a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs cases taking an average of over 400 days to complete, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

The findings by a court-appointed official overseeing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office said the slowness in completing the investigations is unacceptable for both members of the public who make complaints and officers awaiting the findings.

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“In various discussions that have transpired, there is always a sense of lingering optimism, but little follow-up and even less progress on the issues I have cited here,” the monitor, Robert Warshaw, wrote in the July 10 letter.

Warshaw, who oversees a court-ordered internal affairs overhaul at the agency, criticized Penzone for failing to fill new internal investigator positions that were already budgeted by the county and not following the suggestion to pay retired investigators to help reduce the backlog.

The court requires internal investigations to be completed within 60 or 85 days, depending upon which office at the agency handles the cases.

Penzone said his office made warnings nearly two years ago about the growing caseload, but its own suggestions for confronting the problem were rejected by court officials and lawyers involved in a related court case. Penzone, who is seeking reelection in November, said the court’s orders have created a slow process for change.

“Unfortunately, we currently work with an adversarial process that slows any progress we are able to make,” said Penzone.

Since taking office nearly four years ago, Penzone has sought to overhaul internal affairs operations, which had been criticized for biased decision-making and shielding sheriff’s officials from accountability under his predecessor, Joe Arpaio. During his administration, the agency was found by a judge to have racially profiled Latinos in traffic stops that targeted immigrants.

Arpaio's defiance of a court order to stop his immigration patrols led to his criminal conviction; he was later pardoned by President Donald Trump. As part of the case focusing on the traffic stops, the judge appointed an outside monitor and ordered the department to redo some investigations he deemed inadequate.

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

Raul Piña, who serves on a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office, said a misconduct complaint filed by community members shouldn’t take more than a year to resolve.

“If they have to wait 400 days, that’s significant to them,” Piña said. “That needs to be repaired by the agency.”

Joe Clure, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, which advocates on issues affecting officers, said the slowness of the internal cases leaves the professional lives of officers twisting in the wind because they can’t get hired by other police agencies until their cases have concluded.

“It affects the ability of officers to find work elsewhere,” Clure said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which pressed the profiling case against the sheriff's office, called the backlog “deeply troubling.”

Penzone told Warshaw that his internal affairs investigators carry huge caseloads and that the sheriff’s office, unlike other agencies, doesn’t have the option of treating minor violations differently than serious misconduct.

The sheriff's office said it hired three new investigators last year and has created positions designed for retired internal affairs investigators, but that low pay and the difficulty of passing background checks have led to a small number of qualified candidates.

Currently, the sheriff's office has filled only one of 10 new internal investigator positions that were budgeted by the county.

The agency said it has to balance the need to fill the investigator jobs with the challenge of addressing vacancies throughout its ranks. The internal affairs unit, which currently has 24 investigators, would need 90 investigators to make caseloads more manageable, plus additional supervisors and support staff, the sheriff's office said.

Penzone said his office’s suggestions for lessening the backlog — allowing a statute of limitations on complaints and closing cases in which the subject of the investigation is dead or no longer working for the sheriff’s office— were rejected.

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