A federal grand jury is investigating abuses of power by Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been blasted by Black and Latino civil rights figures as racist and downright inhumane.
To enforce his brand of justice, critics claim, Arpaio has employed a variety of unorthodox, unethical and demeaning methods to enforce his brand of justice – including such practices as issuing pink undies and cartoonish striped jumpsuits to prisoners, housing inmates in tents in 100-plus-degree weather, racial profiling motorists and illegally detaining Latino residents to determine whether they should be deported.
But Lydia Guzman, who runs an Arizona-based civil rights group known as Somos America, says that “racial profiling is the least of [Arpaio’s] problems right now.” She has filed a separate civil lawsuit against his office for what she calls his “reign of terror” on immigrant communities.
In addition to violations of racial profiling, the self-avowed “toughest sheriff” in America, whose jurisdiction of Maricopa County includes Phoenix, is now facing allegations of abuse of power and misuse of federal funds, Guzman says.
“Everything can be tied together,” Salvador Reza, organizer of the PUENTE immigrant rights movement, told Valeria Fernández of New America Media. Reza is planning a Jan. 16 march to protest the criminalization of immigrants and political figures who have been critical of the sheriff’s office, Fernández reports.
“If he were to be indicted for abuse of power, that could extend to look at the way he conducts his enforcement of immigration, too,” he added.
Last year, the Rev. Al Sharpton and Arpaio were locked in a war of words, as the president of the Harlem-based National Action Network demanded that the sheriff cease with his immigration sweeps. After Sharpton threatened that he would lead a massive march through Phoenix, Arpaio called him a clown and dared the civil rights leader to visit bring his “three-ring media circus” to town.
Among the locals who have challenged Arpaio are Maricopa County Manager David Smith and Assistant Manager Sandi Wilson, the first to come forward to testify in front of a grand jury, New America Media reports. Wilson told the news agency that her testimony “will focus on abuse of police powers, threats to employees, budget negotiations, the county’s courthouse project, and deputies’ questioning of employees at their homes.”
“I’m relieved that somebody is finally looking at the abuses we’re dealing with,” she said.
According to New America Media, Wilson was told last February during discussions with the sheriff’s office over budget cuts that she was under criminal investigation.
“For the last two years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas have been engaged in budget and power fights with other county officials,” New America Media reports.
“In December 2009, the county attorney filed a broad civil racketeering complaint against judges, attorneys, elected officials and administrators, including Wilson and Smith, alleging that they were all involved in a conspiracy. The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) lawsuit contends that the group was working to provide funding for a new court tower in exchange for illicit services and blocking criminal prosecutions of those involved in the suit,” according to New America Media.
“Some of those under investigation believe that they have been targets of retaliation for being vocal opponents of the sheriff’s practices toward immigrants.”
Mary Rose Wilcox and Don Stapley, both members of the county board of supervisors, were indicted on separate charges related to perjury and fraud.
Wilcox, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last spring to lobby for an end to the 287(g) programs that give sheriff’s offices the power to conduct immigration sweeps, said, “I think the reason the sheriff has been so punitive against me is because of my stance on immigration. I have a sense of relief that finally the feds are paying attention. You can’t predict what would happen, but it wouldn’t have gone so public if there wasn’t a lot there.”