Sheriff’s office in Phoenix dogged by racial bias questions

PHOENIX (AP) — Traffic stops of Hispanic and black drivers in metro Phoenix were more likely to last longer and result in searches than those of white drivers, according to a report on traffic enforcement by sheriff’s deputies during 2019.

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The report released Wednesday echoes conclusions from past studies aimed at identifying signs of racial bias in stops by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which seven years ago was found to have racially profiled Latinos in former Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.

The examination of 23,000 traffic stops made last year also concluded Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive citations or get arrested than white drivers. Though the study doesn’t conclude officers are still profiling Latinos, it said the enforcement disparities are possible indications of unconscious racial bias.

“These disparities may indicate a systemic problem,” the report said.

The sheriff’s office is required to produce the studies as one of the remedies to its profiling verdict in 2013. Since then, the agency has been undergoing a massive court-ordered overhaul that’s projected to cost county taxpayers $178 million by the summer of 2021. No one in county government can say when the financial hemorrhaging is expected to end.

Sheriff Paul Penzone, who defeated Arpaio in 2016, said the report will be used to help improve the agency’s practices and vowed to continue examining patrols to determine if officers are profiling drivers. “We are intolerant of any bias or discrimination,” Penzone said Thursday at a virtual public meeting.

It’s unclear how long it will take the sheriff’s office to rid itself of the problems that led to the uneven treatment of Hispanic and black drivers. “The time frame is impossible to determine as cultural changes can be slow to evolve,” the sheriff’s office said.

Critics acknowledge Penzone has made more strides in overhauling the sheriff’s office than Arpaio, but insist the agency still suffers from the racial bias problems from its past.

Raul Piña, who serves on a community advisory board set up to help improve trust in the sheriff’s office, criticized the report for what he said was using euphemisms to describe discriminatory policing, when the study should have squarely called it racial profiling.

“Until you acknowledge that and stop calling it a technicality, then you have to live with that cancer,” Pina said. “It’s horrible.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which defeated the sheriff’s office in the profiling case, said the key to overhauling the agency is changing its work culture.

“People are tired of hearing excuses. MCSO cannot continue its discriminatory policies and must treat the community in an unbiased and dignified manner,” the advocacy group said.

The sheriff’s office has investigated 46 complaints from Hispanics who have alleged bias against its employees since June 2016. One officer was fired, a supervisor was demoted, and two employees who used racial slurs were suspended, Penzone said.

The report shows the total of traffic stops made by the agency, which had fallen sharply in recent years due to the profiling verdict, have generally been rising over the last year, though they are still well below the number of stops made in 2015. The drastic decrease in stops was due to worries among officers that they would be unfairly scrutinized over their decisions to pull over drivers, so many of them made far fewer stops.

Arpaio, who served six terms as sheriff and is running for his old job again this year, conducted traffic patrols targeting immigrants from January 2008 until the spring of 2013. His refusal to stop the patrols led to his criminal contempt of court conviction, though he was spared a possible jail sentence when he was pardoned by President Donald Trump.

While Arpaio has vowed to bring back his immigration patrols if elected again, Penzone made it clear that those crackdowns are a thing of the past.