PHOENIX – Paul Penzone took office four years ago as metro Phoenix's new sheriff promising to turn the page on the problems created by his headline-grabbing predecessor, Joe Arpaio — ousted in part after he was found in contempt of court for disobeying a judge's order in a racial profiling case.
Now Penzone faces calls for a contempt hearing in the same profiling lawsuit, this time for not complying with a court-ordered overhaul of his agency's much-criticized internal affairs operation, which has a backlog of 2,000 cases. Each one takes 500 days on average to complete.
Civil rights lawyers and the U.S. Department of Justice asked a judge in a court filing Wednesday to hold a contempt hearing for Penzone, arguing he is out of compliance with a requirement that internal investigations be completed within 60 or 85 days, depending upon which operation within the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office handles the cases.
The attorneys argued that the the length of the investigations has resulted in lost evidence that makes it more likely that officer misconduct won't be confronted.
The lawyers also said a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has said that it’s questionable whether it should encourage people to file complaints when the process is so flawed, according to court records.
The lawyers said failing to investigate internal complaints on a timely basis harms the class of Hispanics covered by the profiling lawsuit because officers can continue interacting with them while the investigations are pending.
"In short, when the internal investigation and discipline system at MCSO remains in a dysfunctional state by quantitative and qualitative measures, the plaintiff class cannot be assured that there will be accountability for misconduct that affects them,” the attorneys wrote.
Penzone’s office on Thursday declined to comment on the request for a contempt hearing.
It’s unclear what sort of penalties Penzone could face if the court agreed 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 Republican was ousted by the Democratic Penzone in an election, 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.
The 2013 profiling verdict against the sheriff's office led to two court-ordered 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.
It also 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 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.
An official who is monitoring the sheriff’s office on behalf of the judge has criticized Penzone for failing to fill new internal investigator positions and has said the slowness in closing the case was unacceptable for members of the public and officers awaiting the findings.
In the past, Penzone has said his office made warnings two years ago about the growing caseload.
He has said his office's suggestions for confronting the problem — such as 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.
Penzone also has said the sheriff’s office, unlike other police agencies, doesn’t have the option of treating minor violations differently than serious misconduct.
The sheriff’s office has said it has hired new investigators and created positions designed for retired internal affairs investigators, but that low pay and the difficulty for job candidates to pass background checks have led to a small number of qualified candidates.
Despite the criticism about the high volume and slowness of the cases, the sheriff's office has said it has been deemed 100% compliant in the first stage of its internal-affairs overhaul and around 90% compliant on the second stage.