PHOENIX , - Nearly five decades after Joe Arpaio was elected sheriff of Arizona's largest county, taxpayers now cover one of the major bills from thousands of lawsuits that he triggered.
Maricopa County, which is home to Phoenix, reached an agreement last week to pay $3.1million to the county to settle a dispute with a restaurant owner. Arpaio was accused of insulting him and violating his rights by raiding his restaurants.
The county will pay $100 million in attorney fees, settlements, and other costs incurred from six Arpaio terms. These include jail deaths, failed investigations into political enemies of the sheriff, and raids on businesses.
This doesn't include $178 million that taxpayers paid in a 2007 case of racial profiling. It stemmed from Arpaio’s signature traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. However, about 75% of that spending occurred under his successor's watch as they work to comply with court-ordered reforms of the sheriff’s office.
Michael Manning, an Arpaio attorney, won settlements for deaths in Arpaio’s jails, and on behalf county employees under investigation by the sheriff. Manning said that it was shameful that voters continued to re-elect Arpaio despite mounting legal bills.
Manning stated that "they just didn't care so long as they got entertainment value." It just kept going on and on.
Arpaio has been warned by advocates for immigrants that it should be seen as a warning tale about the long-term financial commitments communities will take on if they allow local police officers to handle immigration enforcement.
First, the Republican sheriff was known for putting people in tents during Phoenix's triple-digit heat and making them wear pink underwear. He also used them to join old-time chains gangs. His popularity grew in Republican circles after he initiated immigration crackdowns. This was something that had been considered a federal duty.
These crackdowns went on until 2014, when his immigration powers were finally taken away by the federal government.
After he was found guilty of civil contempt for failing to obey a judge's order during the profiling case, Arpaio suffered a crushing defeat to a Democratic challenger in 2016. This led to a more serious 2017 conviction for criminal contempt that was later pardoned.
Arpaio, 89, lost his 2020 bid for regaining his job. He is running for mayor of Fountain Hills, Arizona.
He said that jail operators are often the targets of large volumes of lawsuits. Given his 24 year tenure as sheriff, "$100 million is not unreasonable."
He said he was defending his immigration crackdowns and that he had a duty enforce state laws that prohibit the smuggling or use of fake IDs to get jobs. Arpaio claims that some spending was necessary to modernize the agency, including equipment and additional staff.
Except for the racial profiling matter, Arpaio's legal expenses averaged $4.2 million per year. This was not nearly as high than some other police agencies. For example, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department's litigation expenses totalled $480 million over the eight-year period ending late June 2020. This is an average of about $60 million per calendar year, according records.
Yet, the sheer number of lawsuits -- over 6,000 in federal court alone -- and Arpaio’s apparent indifference to them is remarkable.
Even after his ouster, the payments continued. A $7 million settlement was reached with the family of a man suffering from mental illness, who died after being beat and stunned by Arpaio's officers.
Arpaio is believed to have settled the case with the restaurateur last week.
The bill for taxpayers arising from the racial profiling case will continue to grow.
In that case, the judge ordered a complete overhaul of traffic enforcement operations at the sheriff's offices. This included new training for deputies and analysis of traffic-stop data. Also, establishing a warning system to identify officers who are acting in a problematic manner, as well as equipping deputies using body cameras and other modifications.
The court ordered another overhaul of the agency’s internal affairs operation. Under Arpaio, it had been criticised for excluding sheriff's officers from accountability.
Arpaio was still president when a quarter of the $178million spent on the profiling case was spent. All the rest was collected during the tenures of Paul Penzone, new Sheriff.
The majority of the money is used to hire employees to meet court requirements. This spending will continue until the sheriff’s office has complied with court requirements for three consecutive years. Although there has been some progress, the sheriff's office has not yet been deemed compliant.
Penzone was faced with his own legal problems, including a civil contempt lawsuit for failing to close internal affairs investigations in a timely manner. Penzone said that he will not contest the claim.
Raul Pina is a member of a community advisory panel that was established to improve trust in the sheriff’s office. He said Arpaio as well as Penzone are to blame for the high costs of the profiling case.
He said that traffic enforcement studies showed that Hispanic drivers stopped by sheriff's officers are still being treated differently to white drivers.
Pina stated, "You don’t want brown people being paraded in front of the cameras." That's better. However, the results of racial profiling remain essentially the same. Is it better? Yes. People can decide that they are happier today. It is possible. It is better to be a victim than the other way around.
Penzone stated in a statement that he is responsible for the challenges presented by the profiling case.
Penzone stated, "Rebuilding an organisation and managing federal court oversight are difficult and evolving processes." "We have made significant progress in certain areas but fallen behind in others. While our work is not finished, you can rest assured that MCSO has made great strides since the beginning of oversight.
Although voter frustration at Arpaio's contempt finding, legal bills and his defeat in 2016 are likely to have played a significant role in his defeat, the former sheriff stated that he has no regrets about his time as sheriff.
Arpaio stated, "I would do it all over again."