In Arizona, fighting the legacy of ‘America’s toughest sheriff’

Caitlin Dickson
·Reporter
Paul Penzone, Democratic candidate for Maricopa County sheriff, speaks to supporters during an election night party, on Nov. 8, 2016, in Phoenix. Penzone unseated longtime incumbent Joe Arpaio. (Photo: Matt York/AP)
Paul Penzone, Democratic candidate for Maricopa County sheriff, speaks to supporters during an election night party, on Nov. 8, 2016, in Phoenix. Penzone unseated longtime incumbent Joe Arpaio. (Photo: Matt York/AP)

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Last Friday morning, Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone walked a few blocks from his office in downtown Phoenix to Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism, where he patiently took questions from a room full of Latino journalism students from high schools around the county.

Predictably, many of their questions concerned immigration: They wanted to know more about Penzone’s new policy on detaining immigrants at local jails, and about recent immigration arrests, like that of Juan Carlos Fomperosa García, a single father of three who was detained and processed for deportation after he had checked in at an office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) the night before.

For several students in attendance, the questions weren’t just journalistic, but personal.

The event was part of Penzone’s effort to repair the relationships of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office with the people it serves — including the more than 1.2 million residents of Hispanic or Latino origin who were, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, systematically persecuted under the policies of Penzone’s predecessor, Joe Arpaio.

With just over 4 million residents, including Anglo retirees from California and the Midwest, Latino migrants and college students, the sprawling county accounts for 60 percent of the state’s population. Its biggest city, Phoenix, also has the highest concentration of undocumented immigrants of any major metropolitan area in the country. And last November, Maricopa County gave Donald Trump more votes than any other county in the United States.

“You know who got more votes than Trump?” Penzone asked during a recent interview with Yahoo News, referring to the election results in Maricopa County. “I did.”

Although he was among Trump’s earliest and most conspicuous supporters, Arpaio, whose endorsement had become a much-sought-after prize for Republican presidential primary contenders, lost his own bid for re-election after 24 years in office.

Penzone, a veteran of the Phoenix police department who ran as a Democrat, maintains that his victory had less to do with politics — which he insists “has no place in law enforcement” — than it did with voters’ overwhelming fatigue with “America’s toughest sheriff.” Arpaio’s controversial crusade against illegal immigration left the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in financial disarray, with a backlog of unsolved sex crimes.

There was also a department-wide pattern of unconstitutional and discriminatory treatment of Latinos that amounted to what an investigator with the U.S. Department of Justice called the “most egregious” pattern of “racial profiling in the United States.”

In this Feb. 4, 2009, file photo, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, left, orders approximately 200 convicted illegal immigrants handcuffed together and moved into a separate area of Tent City, for incarceration until their sentences were served and they were deported to their home countries. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin, File/AP)
In this Feb. 4, 2009, file photo, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, left, orders approximately 200 convicted illegal immigrants handcuffed together and moved into a separate area of Tent City, for incarceration until their sentences were served and they were deported to their home countries. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin, File/AP)

“The brand of this organization was about things such as pink underwear and tanks,” said Penzone. He was referring to signature Arpaio stunts like the emasculating undergarments that are worn by inmates at Maricopa County’s infamous Tent City jail, and to the time he and television “Lawman” Steven Seagal accompanied several sheriff’s deputies on a military-style raid on an alleged cockfighting ring, knocking down the suspect’s front door with a tank.

“The tank will go,” Penzone said decisively. Tent City, the 24-year-old unventilated facility built from Korean War-era Army surplus tents, whose notoriously dismal conditions have been deemed inadequate and unconstitutional by federal judges in the past, is currently under evaluation by the newly constituted “Sheriff Penzone’s Executive Advisory Review” (SPEAR) committee.

With the help of advisory committees, including committees for outreach to Hispanic, African-American and LGBTQ communities, and with new leaders both within the department and from outside, Penzone hopes to change his office’s reputation to one of “professionalism,” ethics and “integrity.”

This vision is shared by many in Maricopa County, from the immigrant activists who led a grassroots campaign to unseat Arpaio to the traditionally conservative editorial board of the Arizona Republic, which endorsed Penzone in his campaign, citing his “refreshing” interest in carrying out the basic duties of law enforcement and public safety.

Despite this broad foundation of support, less than two months after Penzone was sworn into office, he got a taste of political backlash, throwing Maricopa County back into the national spotlight with his first major act as sheriff.

On the evening of Friday, Feb. 17, Penzone announced that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office would no longer comply with ICE requests for courtesy holds — a past practice under which the county’s jails would detain people upon ICE’s request for up to 48 hours after a judge had ordered their release.

The decision, which Penzone says he made after he was informed by the Maricopa County attorney’s office that the practice was unconstitutional, came as a bit of a shock, given the history of the Sheriff’s Office, as well as the debate raging over local law enforcement’s role in immigration. It was immediately applauded by immigrant rights activists and condemned by proponents of strict immigration enforcement, such as the powerful Republican state Sen. John Kavanagh.

Penzone says that before announcing the change in policy, he consulted with ICE to seek an alternative, legally viable solution. But the agency responded to the new policy with a statement calling it an “immediate, dangerous change.”

Soon, a suspiciously-sourced statistic claiming that Penzone would now release 400 “criminal illegal aliens” every 10 days was being circulated across social media and right-wing blogs.

“As far as I can tell, that’s a completely made-up figure — like, truly, really fake news” said Mark Casey, director of public information at the Sheriff’s Office. According to his figures, the number of detainees with ICE hold requests released in the first 10 days of the new policy was 106.

But the following Friday, Penzone’s office announced a revision to its policy to accommodate ICE concerns. While still declining to honor ICE requests for “courtesy holds” in the county’s own jails, the Sheriff’s Office would now notify the agency in advance of the pending release of persons flagged for possible immigration violations — once when processing for their release began, and again 15 minutes before they were actually freed, allowing ICE agents to take them into custody before they left the building.

And Penzone kept in place Maricopa County’s long-standing policy of permitting ICE agents to enter its jails and to interview any people booked there to determine their immigration status.

This rankled local immigration activist Jacinta González, who sued Arpaio and the Sheriff’s Office in December 2016, after she was arrested during a March 2016 protest against then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. González’s suit, which argues that she was unfairly held in jail overnight upon ICE’s request, after a judge had ordered her release, appears to have at least partly prompted Penzone’s decision to end courtesy holds.

Although González said she was pleased that Penzone has recognized such detentions as unconstitutional, she described the policy now in place as “one step forward, two steps back.”

To repair the department’s relationship with the community effectively, González argued, Penzone needs “to completely eradicate all of the unconstitutional behavior that was happening inside of his jail.” As long as ICE agents are allowed inside the jail, she argued, that will not be possible.

“What we need from Sheriff Penzone is to make sure no one is being profiled or rights violated,” she said. “Everyone who enters has to have a warrant. That includes ICE agents.” On Tuesday she amended her suit to incorporate that demand.

The ACLU of Arizona, which has spearheaded a number of major lawsuits against the Sheriff’s Office and is tasked with monitoring the department’s compliance with certain court orders, is also hopeful about Penzone’s progress, with some caveats.

“The Sheriff’s Office is implementing reforms more slowly than we had expected and more slowly than the court ordered, and there continues to be agency-wide racial bias in traffic stops,” said Kathy Brody, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, in a statement to Yahoo News. “We are hopeful that Sheriff Penzone will take immediate action to address the continued problem of bias in his department and will accelerate his agency’s compliance with court orders, which will help protect the rights of Latinos in Maricopa County.”

Paul Penzone, who defeated Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the November election announced on Feb. 17, 2017, that he was ending a policy that keeps immigrants locked up in his jails past their release date, to give federal authorities extra time to launch deportation proceedings. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin, File/AP)
Paul Penzone, who defeated Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the November election announced on Feb. 17, 2017, that he was ending a policy that keeps immigrants locked up in his jails past their release date, to give federal authorities extra time to launch deportation proceedings. (Photo: Ross D. Franklin, File/AP)

Penzone’s decision to change the department’s ICE detainer policy reflects the challenge that he faces in trying to get rid of the worst elements of Arpaio’s legacy while federal policy is moving in the opposite direction and directives are being issued at the national level that, in some cases, seem to have been copied straight from his predecessor’s playbook.

Last month, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued two memos outlining a plan to implement President Trump’s executive orders on immigration. Provisions in those memos included a request for local and county law enforcement agencies to comply with ICE request for courtesy holds — the very practice that the Maricopa County attorney’s office had just deemed unconstitutional.

In a letter to Kelly, Penzone explained his predicament, noting that “43 of the 50 states have counties that cannot enforce courtesy holds due to the illegality of the practice.”

In the memos, Kelly also called on ICE and U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection to resume partnerships under the previously dismantled federal 287(g) program, which provides trained state and local law enforcement officers with the authority to identify and detain people believed to be in the country illegally.

However, as Penzone pointed out in his letter to Kelly, Maricopa County was previously engaged in such a partnership, but had its 287(g) status revoked by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. A three-year Justice Department investigation concluded, according to the Associated Press, that “Arpaio’s office committed a wide range of civil rights violations against Latinos, including unjust immigration patrols and jail policies that deprive prisoners of basic constitutional rights.”

Two years later, federal Judge G. Murray Snow echoed the Justice Department’s conclusions about the Sheriff’s Office’s use of racial profiling in the class-action lawsuit Ortega Melendres v. Arpaio.

In his comprehensive decision on the case, Snow stated that “Until December 2011, [when the agency lost its 287(g) status, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office] operated under the erroneous assumption that being an unauthorized alien in this country established a criminal violation of federal immigration law. … However, in the absence of additional facts, being in the country without authorization is not, in and of itself, a federal criminal offense.”

Penzone called on Kelly to provide clearer guidelines of how Homeland Security expects local law enforcement agencies to assist federal immigration enforcement efforts without overstepping legal boundaries.

“It has always been my position we must be strong on issues of crime, including illegal immigration,” he wrote. However, “I will not violate the law or the constitution so the ends justify the means.”

Court orders and other legal ramifications of Arpaio’s practices are just part of the mess inherited by Penzone.

During the height of Arpaio’s worksite immigration raids, between 2005 and 2007, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office neglected to investigate hundreds of sex crimes, including many allegations of child molestation. A 2008 report by the conservative Goldwater institute found that under Arpaio’s watch, “violent crime rates recently have soared, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions,” noting a coinciding drop in arrest rates by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies and prolonged response times to 911 calls. (In addition to running the jails, the Sheriff’s Office is the first responder in most of the county outside the city of Phoenix, which has its own police department.)

“A lot of the energy and a lot of the money and a lot of the focus of the agency was around advancing the previous sheriff’s profile,” said Casey, who joined Penzone’s administration after 17 years at the local NBC News affiliate, where he covered the department under Arpaio. “That kind of got worse over time.”

In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, Paul Penzone addresses supporters at an election party in Phoenix. (Photo: Matt York, File/AP)
In this Nov. 8, 2016, file photo, Paul Penzone addresses supporters at an election party in Phoenix. (Photo: Matt York, File/AP)

“The sheriff is basically bringing basic principles of operation to the law enforcement agency, getting it focused on law enforcement,” said Casey. This includes reassuring members of Maricopa County’s immigrant and even undocumented populations that they, too, are entitled to police protection, as confusion and fear surrounding new federal enforcement policies have driven many into hiding.

“We as an agency have a lot of baggage in this area,” he said, noting that the Sheriff’s Office is choosing to handle this problem through outreach. “The way you police this is: You are visible and you’re nonthreatening.”

But González questions the effectiveness of outreach, arguing that, “At the end of the day, the community knows what really matters is what happens inside of his jail.”

“It doesn’t really matter if he has advisory committees if you know that if you’re Latino, you’re going to be profiled in that jail,” she said. She pointedly noted that Penzone’s victory owed much to the votes of Latinos and other immigrants.

“Penzone was elected on a platform of respect for everyone’s human rights,” she said. “People are really watching his leadership.”

At least some of the students at last week’s journalism school gathering said they were pleasantly surprised to hear Penzone address some of these concerns.

Emily Cervantes, a freshman at Mesa High School, in Mesa, Ariz., said that although her father has lived in the United States since he was 20 or so, “he hasn’t got his working permit, so he’s scared, and he’s very stressed.”

The family of Cervantes’ classmate Veronica Haumann is dealing with similar concerns. Her mother, who is a U.S. citizen, has begun driving her stepfather, who is not, to work every morning.

“She doesn’t want him driving anymore,” Haumann told Yahoo News, out of fear, she said, that he might be stopped, checked — and wind up in ICE custody. “And then my baby brother would grow up without a dad.”