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Arizona Sheriff Arpaio Plans To Fight DOJ Lawsuit


In a rare move, the U.S. Justice Department has sued a local law enforcement agency for civil rights violations. One of their targets is the man who calls himself America's toughest sheriff, Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. NPR's Ted Robbins has the story.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Sheriff Joe, as locals in the Phoenix area call him, courts controversy and publicity. He got a massive dose of both Thursday when the Justice Department filed only its second lawsuit in 18 years of police reform. The complaint alleges that in an effort to crackdown on illegal immigrants, Arpaio's deputies have harassed and detained Latino citizens and legal residents. Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez says that depending on where they live, Latinos have been four to nine times more likely than non-Latinos to be stopped in traffic or on the street.

ASSISTANT ATTORNEY GENERAL TOM PEREZ: If you look Latino, the complaint alleges, you are all-too-frequently fair game for MCSO officers.

ROBBINS: The lawsuit also says the sheriff's department violates the rights of jail inmates who speak only Spanish.

PEREZ: MCSO detention officers have forced Latino prisoners with limited English skills to sign key legal documents that are printed in English which they can't understand, in which they have forfeited - or potentially forfeited - key rights.

ROBBINS: And finally, the complaint alleges that Sheriff Arpaio has retaliated against those who criticize him. Tom Perez read from a separate state ethics complaint.

PEREZ: Which found that the sheriff and others were involved in a, quote, "concerted effort to wrestle power from the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, county officials and Superior Court judges, and to instill fear in the hearts of those who would resist," unquote.

ROBBINS: Arpaio and the Justice Department have been negotiating over the charges, but the talks broke down after the sheriff refused to allow an appointed federal monitor to oversee reforms. It's the something the government has done elsewhere with the cooperation of cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburgh. But after the lawsuit was filed, an angry Arpaio told reporters there's no way he'll give in to that demand.

JOE ARPAIO: I am not going to surrender my office to the federal government. I will fight this to the bitter end.

ROBBINS: Arpaio denied the charges, and as he has before, called them politically motivated and not specific.

ARPAIO: And quite frankly, I'm very happy that we are being sued, because now we will make them put up everything they've accusing me and my office of.

ROBBINS: The evidence will come out in court. Meanwhile, the 79-year-old Arpaio is running for a sixth term as sheriff. This time, though, he'll be fighting his political opponents while he's fighting this federal lawsuit. Ted Robbins, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As supervising editor for Arts and Culture at NPR based at NPR West in Culver City, Ted Robbins plans coverage across NPR shows and online, focusing on TV at a time when there's never been so much content. He thinks "arts and culture" encompasses a lot of human creativity — from traditional museum offerings to popular culture, and out-of-the-way people and events.