Last week, the federal civil trial of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio began after a group of Latinos in that state filed a class-action lawsuit alleging their civil rights were violated. The suit alleges that he and his department engaged in systematic racial profiling while discriminating against Latinos, and used illegal and excessive force to silence critics, among other violations. This civil lawsuit, which seeks only reconciliation and a change of policy within Arpaio’s department, precedes a similar Department of Justice lawsuit against Arpaio that has been developing since before Barack Obama took office.
The lawsuit originated in the unjust seizure of a retired Mexican schoolteacher in 2007 and has since grown to encompass all Arizonan Latinos wrongfully targeted by the Arpaio administration.
On Wednesday, Arpaio reiterated his belief that President Obama’s birth certificate is an elaborate forgery, and the department he heads is under a continued criminal investigation for abuse-of-power violations. Arpaio contends that the “sweeps” he directed, in which officers would deluge an area for days with the ostensible purpose of fighting crime, did not lead to racial profiling despite evidence that Latinos were much more likely to be stopped than any other ethnicity, and, when they were stopped, they were stopped for a longer duration.
The case will likely hinge upon letters that Arpaio circulated among his staff that read, “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal who are here ILLEGALLY.” The emphasis is not mine. There is also evidence that Arpaio ordered “sweeps” not on legitimate concerns of crime but on letters that reference only Spanish-speaking as a cause for concern.
Proponents of Arpaio’s controversial policies argue that if “sweeps” do lead to arrests of illegal immigrants, and those illegal immigrants happen to be Latino, then so be it. The alleged racial conflict in Arizona brings to mind the debate over the stop-and-frisk practices in New York, the principal issue of which is whether the practices unfairly target blacks. In both states, supporters of the hard-nosed practices point to the success rate and ignore the moral implications arising from the practices themselves.
I hesitate to condemn any party before a trial concludes, but the evidence at hand lends inarguable credence to the plaintiffs’ claims against Arpaio. If they are true, we must hurry to disavow evident prejudices reminiscent of the pre-civil rights era. I, for one, cringe at the thought of police officials targeting a specific type of person. Are we not past such disgusting behavior?
We can all agree that our nation’s efforts to adequately address the overwhelming tide of illegal immigration have been mostly ineffectual, and so it is exceedingly important that we do not also heap upon ourselves a moral crisis.