PHOENIX – Taxpayers in metro Phoenix are approaching a milestone in their financial pain from a 2013 racial profiling verdict over former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration crackdowns: In roughly a year, those ongoing costs will exceed a quarter of a billion dollars.
The bill is projected to reach $273 million by the summer of 2024, officials were told Monday before they approved a tentative budget that included $38 million in legal and compliance spending for the racial profiling lawsuit during the coming fiscal year.
A decade ago, a federal judge concluded the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s signature traffic patrols that targeted immigrants, leading to massive court-ordered overhauls of both the agency’s traffic operations and its internal affairs department.
Under Arpaio, who was voted out as sheriff in 2016, the internal affairs operation was heavily criticized for biased decision-making. It now suffers from a crushing backlog of more than 1,900 internal affairs investigations under Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone.
The overwhelming majority of the spending goes toward hiring employees to help meet the court’s requirements and a separate staff who work on behalf of the court to monitor compliance by the sheriff's office with both overhauls.
The taxpayer spending is expected to continue until the Maricopa County sheriff’s office has fully complied with overhauling its traffic enforcement and internal affairs operations for three straight years. Although three of the agency’s four compliance scores are near or at 100%, the sheriff’s office hasn’t yet been deemed fully compliant.
Late last year, Penzone was found in civil contempt of court for noncompliance with the internal affairs overhaul.
Before Penzone was elected, Arpaio was found in both civil and criminal for disobeying a 2011 order to stop his immigration patrols. He was spared a possible jail sentence when his misdemeanor conviction was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump in 2017.
Raul Piña, who serves on a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office, said the agency has made improvements since the court started supervising it.
“But the big pillar -– racial profiling -– that continues,” Piña said. “Until you wrap your arms around the big issues, compliance and the monitoring does not go away. And you still have the costs. If there is not a moral imperative to fix it, there is financial imperative to get us out of this bottomless pit.”
Attorneys who pressed the case against the sheriff’s office have criticized the agency for traffic-stop studies since the profiling verdict showing deputies often treat drivers who are Hispanic and Black differently than other drivers, though the reports stopped short of saying Latinos were still being profiled.
In a statement, Penzone’s office said it can’t say when it will reach full compliance, but noted compliance scores have improved under his leadership.
“These costs continue to increase as salaries, benefits and contracts increase over time due to inflation,” the agency said. “Even as we become compliant, many of these costs will remain as removing them could jeopardize future compliance.”
As he has in the past, Arpaio – who famously broke the longtime local police tradition of staying out of immigration enforcement – blamed Penzone for the costs.
“Am I sorry for what I did — doing my job enforcing the illegal immigration laws?” Arpaio said. “No.”
Arpaio’s immigration patrols, known as “sweeps,” involved large numbers of sheriff’s deputies converging on an area of metro Phoenix — including some Latino neighborhoods — over the course of several days to stop traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Arpaio led 20 of the large-scale patrols from January 2008 through October 2011. Under Arpaio’s leadership, the agency continued doing immigration enforcement in smaller, more routine traffic patrols until spring 2013, leading to his criminal conviction.
Lydia Guzman, a Latino civil rights advocate and longtime Arpaio critic, said it isn’t fair to blame Penzone for the agency’s deep problems.
“I think that, at the end of the day, what caused all this was Joe. We would have never been in this bind. Maricopa County could have been flourishing with all sorts of wonderful (government) programs if the Melendres case did not exist,” Guzman said, referring to the profiling case by its proper name. “I blame Joe.”