PHOENIX - Lawyers in Arizona for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and attorneys from the U.S. Justice Department plan to meet for the first time Monday to try to resolve federal accusations of civil rights violations against the local law enforcement department.
The meeting would come nearly two months after the Justice Department released a scathing Dec. 15 report accusing Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office of racially profiling Latinos, basing immigration enforcement on racially charged citizen complaints and pushing Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish.
Joseph Popolizio, one of the lawyers representing the sheriff's office, wrote in a letter Wednesday to a DOJ official that the meeting was scheduled but it wasn't immediately clear whether it'll be in Washington, Phoenix or somewhere else. Federal officials have said they're willing to negotiate ways to reform the sheriff's office in Arizona's most populous county.
Arpaio has long been known for launching traffic patrols that target illegal immigrants, raiding businesses suspecting of knowingly hiring illegal businesses and pushing the boundaries on what local police can do to crack down on illegal immigration.
He denies the racial profiling allegations and he struck a defiant tone in response to the Justice Department's report, calling it a politically motivated attack by the Obama administration that will make Arizona unsafe by keeping illegal immigrants on the street.
The civil rights allegations have led some Arpaio critics to call for his resignation, including the National Council of La Raza, which held a news conference in Phoenix on Thursday to call for the sheriff to step down.
The organization's president, Janet Murguia, said Arpaio has created a culture of fear among Latinos in the Phoenix area, so much so that many don't report crimes.
"Joe Arpaio likes to call himself America's toughest sheriff, but a tough sheriff fosters a healthy respect for law and order, keeps the peace, and strikes fear into the heart of criminals, not the people he or she has sworn to protect," Murguia said. "It is long past time for America's worst sheriff to go."
Arpaio has said he won't resign and intends to seek a sixth term this year.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez, who heads the Justice Department's civil rights division, wrote in a Jan. 17 letter to Popolizio that MCSO appeared to be trying to delay a reform meeting by imposing "unworkable preconditions, including a prodigious discovery request containing 106 different demands for information."
Popolizio replied in a Wednesday letter to Perez that the DOJ appeared to be ignoring Arpaio and the sheriff' office's "participation and cooperation with this investigation over the last 16 months."
Popolizio again asked the DOJ "to provide the factual details behind its findings in this investigation" and said federal authorities may have relied on "inaccurate" stories in the media.
Justice officials would like the office to seek training in constitutional policing and dealing with jail inmates with limited English skills, collect data on traffic stops and immigration enforcement, and establish a comprehensive disciplinary system that permits the public to make complaints against officers without fear of retaliation.
The sheriff's office also is facing criticism over more than 400 sex-crimes investigations -- including dozens of alleged child molestations -- that hadn't been investigated adequately or weren't examined at all over a three-year period ending in 2007.
Arpaio has apologized for the botched cases, reopened 432 sex-crimes investigations and made 19 arrests.
Separate from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009. That grand jury is examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America has been a national political fixture who has built his reputation on jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear, selling himself to voters as unceasingly tough on crime and pushing the bounds of how far local police can go to confront illegal immigration.