Letter to feds questions tactics; sheriff calls him 'disconnected'
In the wake of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office crackdowns on illegal immigrants throughout the Valley, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon is calling on the FBI to investigate whether Sheriff Joe Arpaio has violated any civil-rights laws.
In an April 4 letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Gordon asked the Justice Department's civil-rights division and the FBI to probe what Gordon calls a "pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests."
Justice Department officials promised to review Gordon's letter but declined further comment.
Arpaio said it was ironic that Gordon drafted the letter on the same day that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials from Washington observed his deputies arresting residents and illegal immigrants in Guadalupe and approved of the sheriff's work.
"I think the mayor is disconnected from the people he represents and he doesn't get the point. Now he's going to Washington to confuse the issue and try to get the public against me," Arpaio said Saturday. "It's not going to work. I've done nothing wrong."
During the past month, sheriff's deputies and posse members, about 200 strong, have gone into neighborhoods with high Hispanic populations, citing drivers for routine traffic violations and detaining suspected illegal immigrants when federally trained deputies encounter them.
The actions have sparked an outcry from civil-rights and immigrant-rights advocates and emboldened Arpaio's supporters.
ICE officials have said repeatedly that Arpaio is not violating the formal agreement he has with their office allowing sheriff's deputies to enforce immigration laws.
Gordon's call for an investigation seemed certain to escalate a growing conflict between Phoenix City Hall and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office over how law-enforcement resources should be used to enforce immigration laws.
Letter details sweeps
Gordon's four-page letter details Arpaio's recent sweeps through predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Phoenix and Guadalupe.
"Over the past few weeks, Sheriff Arpaio's actions have infringed on the civil rights of our residents," Gordon wrote. "They have put our residents' well-being, and the well-being of law enforcement officers, at risk."
In his letter, Gordon says he was moved to write after Arpaio pledged to bring his sweeps to other Valley cities on an ongoing basis. Gordon, who is an attorney, asks that Arpaio be investigated for possible violations of four laws, including the Civil Rights Act and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act.
Gordon declined to discuss his letter in detail. "The letter speaks for itself," he said.
The raids, which Arpaio has described as efforts to suppress crime in problem areas, have won the sheriff praise from residents fed up with government inaction on illegal immigration. But they have been harshly criticized by civil libertarians who say the sheriff's raids have led to racial-profiling and the illegal detainment of U.S. citizens.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have said the raids are likely to spark civil-rights lawsuits against the sheriff.
Last week, the Arizona Ecumenical Council and American Jewish Committee issued a joint letter saying the raids had "evoked a 'police state' atmosphere" and led to "detainment on the basis of a racial profile and dehumanization of innocent people."
They were joined on Friday by the Arizona chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, which echoed calls for a Justice Department investigation.
"We're not saying the sheriff's guilty," said Bill Straus, the chapter's executive director, who described himself as a friend of Arpaio's. "All we're saying is, if the sheriff's department continues operating under this cloud of allegations and they're not true, that's really unfair to the sheriff's department. If in fact they are true, it needs to stop."
A Justice Department investigation could lead to civil or criminal proceedings. Civil charges could result in a restraining order preventing certain aspects of Arpaio's raids, officials said. Criminal charges could lead to prosecution.
In his office, Gordon has a pair of posters held by protesters at the recent sweep that took place near Cave Creek and Bell roads. Given to him by a Phoenix police officer who was on the scene, one refers to Latinos with an expletive and a slur. Another says "Hooray for the slaughtering of the illegals!" and is adorned with a swastika.
Arpaio insists Gordon is taking the opportunity to play political games and said the series of letters, whether they come from ministers or politicians, don't bother him.
"I don't think any of them carry any weight cause I have nothing to hide," he said. "(Gordon) did this on his own because he's taking the heat. Now he's degrading my office and my deputies by insinuating that they're violating all these civil laws. We don't profile."
The city of Phoenix's response to illegal immigration has focused on finding violent criminals and human smugglers.
Arpaio wants his deputies to ask about immigration status for the most minor offenses and says business owners and city leaders ask for his deputies to come into their communities.
On March 28, in a widely publicized speech, Gordon came out against the sheriff's tactics, calling them "made-for-TV stunts." Arpaio said he was "outraged" at Gordon's remarks but would not be deterred from his efforts to enforce immigration laws.
One week after his speech, Gordon wrote his letter to the attorney general.
Criticizing Arpaio so publicly has brought widespread media attention to Gordon in recent days, and skeptics have asked whether the mayor is attempting to burnish his credentials as a progressive by taking on the sheriff. Aides dismiss any political motive, saying Gordon is driven by a genuine concern about unrest in the community.
"I understand these are serious allegations," Gordon said in his letter to the nation's attorney general. "As mayor of the city of Phoenix, I must speak out when the rights of our residents are violated and the safety of our neighborhoods threatened."