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DOJ's Findings on the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office a Wake-up Call

Jan 3, 2012
Karen Siciliano Lucas

On December 15th, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) published its extensive factual findings of racism and discriminatory policing at the highest levels of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO).  DOJ observed that not only had racism against Latinos infiltrated almost every aspect of criminal justice in this locality, but MCSO’s bigotry had likely undermined its ability to protect public safety.  DOJ articulated serious concerns that “MCSO’s prioritization of immigration enforcement may have compromised its ability to secure the safety and security of Maricopa County residents.”  Since shifting its focus to immigration enforcement, DOJ reports, “violent crime rates have increased significantly as compared to similarly situated jurisdictions.”  DOJ announced that it will continue to investigate whether MCSO implemented its immigration enforcement “with deliberate indifference to the way in which the program compromises MCSO’s ability to provide effective policing services to Maricopa County’s residents.”

The manner of its enforcement has “poisoned” the relationship between Latinos and MCSO, the Police Executive Research Forum concluded.  By MCSO’s own admission, DOJ reported, fully 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation were improperly investigated over three years.

For those of us who have seen first-hand the devastating fear felt by crime victims (especially by victims of domestic and sexual violence) in jurisdictions where police have gotten into the business of immigration enforcement, the serious attention that DOJ gives to this matter is welcome.  DOJ’s findings in Maricopa County should be a wake-up call to the entire nation that we need to think critically about what we mean by security.  What actually makes us more secure?  Police play a critical public safety function in our communities, but their enforcement of our criminal laws is not all that makes us safe.  Stable and vibrant social institutions – like our families, churches and schools – also ensure our security.  These institutions serve as bulwarks against criminal behavior and juvenile delinquency.  But state-level immigration enforcement undermines these critical institutions.  It breaks up families.  It makes children afraid to go to school.  It empties out Hispanic church congregations.  Does this make us more secure? 

The majority of “offenders” caught up in federal/state enforcement partnerships like Secure Communities are minor traffic offenders or those who have never been convicted of any crime at all.  So public safety is not even being served.  We should be very concerned by the trend in states like Alabama to criminalize the everyday lives of immigrants – actions like asking for work, registering a car, or driving to the hospital.  The more behaviors the state considers “criminal,” the more our institutions are shattered by Secure Communities.

We should be very careful to avoid assuring ourselves that Maricopa County is a solitary case.  DOJ has already found such racism against Latinos to have wormed its way into the policing practices of the New Orleans Police Department, for example.  A recent study by the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley provides evidence to suggest that Secure Communities operates nationally with a racial bias. 

Racial discrimination against Latinos is real.  And it undergirds more laws than we know.  Just ask DOJ.