Penzone won't contest civil contempt claim in profiling case

PHOENIX (AP) — The sheriff of metro Phoenix will not contest a claim that he is in civil contempt of court in the same racial profiling case in which his predecessor, Joe Arpaio, was found to be in contempt.

Without explicitly saying Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone was in contempt, his lawyers said in court papers filed Thursday night that the lawman understands that a judge intends to hold him in contempt for noncompliance with a court-ordered overhaul of his agency’s much criticized internal affairs operation.

Penzone’s lawyers said he would not dispute a contempt finding and agrees with U.S. District Judge Murray Snow’s suggestion a week ago that it was more reasonable to focus on remedying the problems stemming from noncompliance. The judge previously suggested it would be a waste of time to argue over whether Penzone was in compliance.

The lawyers who won a profiling verdict eight years ago over Arpaio’s immigration patrols say Penzone is out of compliance because it has a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs cases, each taking an average of 500 days to complete.

The court requires the sheriff’s office to complete the investigations within 60 or 85 days, depending on which operation within the agency handles the cases.

One possible remedy mentioned previously by the judge: Imposing a monthly fine against the Maricopa County until it comes into compliance and use the proceeds to hire more internal affairs employees.

Penzone unseated Arpaio in 2016 on promises to turn the page on the longtime sheriff’s headline-grabbing tactics and get the county’s business in order in the profiling case.

Arpaio was found in both civil and criminal contempt for disobeying a 2011 order to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. His conviction was pardoned by then-President Donald Trump.

Arpaio’s defiance in the profiling case contributed significantly to his defeat after 24 years in office.

The sheriff’s office was found in 2013 to have racially profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s immigration patrols.

The verdict led to two court-ordered overhauls of the agency, one of its traffic enforcement division and another of its internal affairs operation, which under Arpaio had been criticized for biased decision-making and shielding sheriff’s officials from accountability.

Snow stripped the sheriff’s office of some of its autonomy over internal affairs. Transfers of employees in and out the internal affairs unit are now required to be approved by a court official who is monitoring the sheriff’s office on behalf of Snow. The sheriff’s office also is required to investigate all complaints of officer misconduct, even those made anonymously.

Penzone’s attorneys had said the sheriff’s office made warnings about the internal affairs backlog to court officials, but its suggestions for fixing the problem were rejected.

Attorneys who filed the profiling lawsuit argued that the length of the investigations has resulted in lost evidence that makes it more likely that officer misconduct won’t be confronted.

They also pointed out that a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office has said it’s questionable whether it should encourage people to file complaints when the process is so flawed.

Although some of the agency’s compliance numbers are near or at 100%, the sheriff’s office hasn’t yet been deemed fully compliant with either of the court-ordered overhauls of its operations.

The compliance and legal costs for taxpayers in metro Phoenix from the profiling case are expected to reach $202 million by the summer of 2022.

Earlier this week, Penzone’s office released a study that concluded Hispanic drivers pulled over by sheriff’s officers were more likely to last longer and result in searches or arrests than those of white drivers.

The report echoes some of the same conclusions from past traffic enforcement studies, which the agency is required to produce as part of the profiling case.

Three months ago, the lawyers who won the profiling case complained Penzone’s office hadn't completed an intervention with sheriff’s deputies to address indications of bias since early 2019.

Penzone’s office responded by saying a pilot program using traffic-stop data for officer interventions began in 2021.