Sheriff’s office in Phoenix struggling with Arpaio legacy

Even though Joe Arpaio was ousted as metro Phoenix’s sheriff four years ago, the agency he used to run still struggles in the wake of his controversial 24-year tenure, including overhauling traffic patrols that treat Black and Hispanic drivers differently than whites and a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs cases.

Sheriff Paul Penzone, a Democrat who crushed Arpaio in the 2016 election, came into office promising to bring a more low-key professionalism to the job, closed his predecessor’s complex of jail tents, and made more significant strides than Arpaio in complying with court-ordered overhauls that have stripped away of some of the department's autonomy.

While he has won support from many Latino leaders, Penzone has been criticized by some civil rights advocates who say he hasn’t done enough to restore the Hispanic community’s trust in the sheriff’s office. They express outrage that Penzone, like Arpaio did years earlier, lets federal agents into his jails to take people into custody for immigration violations.

With the explosion of internal affairs cases during Penzone’s tenure, officers also are making far fewer traffic stops than during Arpaio’s tenure because they fear it might expose them to investigations that could stall their careers.

Jerry Sheridan, the Republican challenger in the Nov. 3 general election, served as Arpaio’s second-in-command in his final years as sheriff and is selling himself as a leader with 38 years of experience who can lift sagging morale and win back the department’s autonomy from the court.

Even though Sheridan insists he’s his own man, he has been saddled with his affiliation with his former boss. Arpaio and Sheridan were found in civil contempt of court for disobeying a 2011 court order to stop Arpaio’s patrols that targeted immigrants.

Arpaio was later convicted of criminal contempt for defying the court order and was pardoned by President Donald Trump. Sheridan was never criminally charged.

Sheridan said he was unaware of the highly publicized court order, though an investigator later found Sheridan violated a policy requiring him to be truthful when he made that claim.

Stan Barnes, a political consultant in Phoenix and former Republican state lawmaker, said the sheriff’s office appears more competently run under Penzone, but cautioned the Democratic lawman’s party affiliation may hurt him in a Republican-heavy county that doesn’t look fondly on calls to take away funding from police agencies, even though Penzone has opposed such efforts.

“The race is hard to call,” Barnes said. “The incumbent sheriff has done a good job, but not all voters understand that, and I think voters will revert to their partisan selves when it comes to electing the sheriff of Maricopa County.”

Penzone has expressed frustration about the crush of internal affairs investigations that came about after a judge overseeing a racial profiling case against the sheriff’s office decided to overhaul the agency’s internal affair’s operation, which under Arpaio was criticized for biased decision-making that allowed sheriff’s officials to escape accountability. The cases are taking an average of more than 400 days to complete.

Penzone has been criticized for failing to fill new investigator positions to help reduce the backlog, but he said he doesn’t have the funds to hire 90 additional investigators needed to lessen the case load. He hopes to persuade the court to make changes to lessen the backlog.

The department has been under court supervision since a judge concluded in 2013 that sheriff’s deputies racially profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s immigration patrols. Taxpayer costs from the case are projected to reach $178 million by next summer. No one in county government can say when the spending will ease.

Some critics have faulted Penzone for failing to adequately engage the Latino community. And even years after the overhaul of the agency's traffic operations began, traffic stop studies have found stops of Hispanic and Black drivers were more likely to last longer and result in searches than those of white drivers. Penzone said the complaints about him within the Latino community are coming from a small number of activists and defended his decision to let immigration agents in county jails as necessary in cooperating with other law enforcement agencies. “I firmly believe a majority of the Hispanic community believes they live in a safe place and will be protected by this office more so now than over the last quarter century,” Penzone said.

Sheridan said sheriff’s employees are starving for direction and that Penzone’s rigid leadership style alienates employees. He said the huge number of internal affairs investigations has turned law enforcers into mere “call takers.”

While Sheridan insists he’s right person to bring the agency into court compliance, he was criticized several years ago for calling one of the court’s orders in the racial profiling case “ludicrous” in front of his officers. He now says he regrets those comments.

He asked voters to judge him on his experience, not his affiliation with his Arpaio. “I am not Joe Arpaio. I am Jerry Sheridan,” he said. “I will run the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office not as anyone else in the past, including the current sheriff and the prior sheriff I worked for.”

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