Arizona’s notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio has another scandal to add to his reputation–but this time it’s what the self-proclaimed "toughest Sheriff in America" didn’t do, particularly for the children of undocumented families that he so often maligns.
Over a three-year period ending in 2007, Arpaio’s office failed to properly investigate over 400 reported sex crimes in Maricopa County, including many instances of child molestation. Many cases were not even worked at all after the initial reports were taken.
In the city El Mirage, for example, there were at least 32 reported child molestation cases that were neglected. A majority of the victims were children of undocumented immigrants, with some as young as two years old. Despite the fact that there were suspects in all but six of the cases, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) did not advance the investigations.
"Inaction speaks as loudly as action. To not pursue the full steps that are necessary is unacceptable," said Juanita Molina, the Executive Director of Border Action Network, an immigration advocacy group based in Arizona. "It reinforces once again that law enforcement is not taking care of this community."
Arpaio’s known for his egregiously cruel treatment of inmates, anti-immigrant policies, and sensationalist brand of justice. He is famous for forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear and outdated prison stripes, feeding them rotten food, and holding them in outdoor tent cities in extreme desert heat.
The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against him for refusing to cooperate with their investigation into human rights violations in his jails. His zealous immigration sweeps are unmatched: in 2007 Arpaio’s department was singlehandedly responsible for a quarter of the 115,841 deportations that resulted from 287(g), a Homeland Security program that made it okay for local law enforcement to detain immigrants without criminal charge. Those roundups of immigrants led the nation, with Los Angeles County coming in a distant second at fewer than half Arpaio’s number.
Yet despite his crusade to chase down immigrants, Arpaio apparently dropped the ball on keeping people in his county, documented and undocumented, safe from sexual offenders.
Even after the scandal was revealed and cases reopened, the department’s actions were too little, too late. Much of the evidence had grown cold or hadn’t been collected in the first place, and many victims had moved away or were trying to move on. Of the 432 reopened cases, 19 arrests were made.
"One of the reasons these crimes going uninvestigated was so unfortunate is because it was avoidable," said Elizabeth Ditlevson, Acting Executive Director of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It was not because of a lack of resources or other things that make our work difficult. It was about political convenience within the department."
The MCSO internal investigation into managerial misconduct was held up more than once, and Arpaio’s office was tight-lipped about it for several months. Now, as it nears completion, MCSO has announced that five of its deputies face major disciplinary actions for their role in the sex crime unit’s failure to investigate hundreds of sex crimes.
According to Monday’s article by ABC15, who originally broke the story in May, two of the officers, Mary Ward and James Weege, now working for another police department, told ABC15 Investigators that the sex crimes unit couldn’t handle the case load in part because command staff frequently ordered detectives to spend time on what they called "politically motivated" cases instead.
They are not the only ones saying the decision to mishandle or ignore the cases came from higher up. An Associated Press article brought the scandal back into the spotlight on Sunday, and stated that Bill Louis, then-assistant El Mirage police chief who reviewed the files after the sheriff’s contract ended, believes the decision to ignore the cases was made deliberately by supervisors in Arpaio’s office — and not by individual investigators.
"I know the investigators. I just cannot believe they would wholesale discount these cases. No way," Louis said. "The direction had to come (from) up the food chain."
In the wake of this mess, Arpaio’s critics are joined by Arizona Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, who issued a statement urging Arpaio to resign before doing any further damage to public confidence in law enforcement. "Enforcing laws against violent crime, whatever a victim’s legal status, is mandatory and not something we leave to individual communities as an open question. Selective enforcement undermines respect for our brave legal officers and is rightly not tolerated by the public," Grijalva said.
Ditlevson’s sentiments illuminate the reality of those who MCSO failed to protect. "If people are afraid for whatever reason, including their documentation status, to reach out for safety and support, this results in the community feeling less safe," she said. "Coming forward for anyone who has been a victim of intimate crime is so hard. Not responding reinforces the message to the victim that it is not serious, and that is not okay."
Arpaio’s office held a press conference a day after the Associated Press ran the article. The Sheriff coughed up an apology, of sorts: "If there were any victims, I apologize to those victims."