Phoenix, AZ — A federal judge has found Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in contempt of the court for failing to adhere to court-ordered reforms that originated from the ACLU of Arizona’s racial profiling lawsuit, Melendres v. Penzone. An investigation earlier this year found that the backlog of pending misconduct cases grew exponentially since Sheriff Penzone took office in 2017. On average, it takes the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) 596 days to complete an investigation and holds a backlog of over 2,000 pending misconduct investigation cases. The judge’s contempt order reflects MCSO's failure to complete timely investigations under the helm of Sheriff Penzone.
Melendres v. Penzone exposed the unconstitutional racial profiling patterns and practices that then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio espoused and perpetuated within the MCSO, agency-wide. During Arpaio’s time as Maricopa County Sheriff, Latino drivers’ rights were habitually violated and were often unlawfully detained during routine traffic stops. In 2016, Arpaio was held in civil contempt for violating court orders related to the lawsuit and later, when faced with criminal contempt charges, was pardoned by former President Trump.
“The time for excuses has run out — Sheriff Penzone has had over six years to fix the problems that continue to plague this agency and prove to the court and our clients that he is dedicated to rebuilding trust in the Latino community,” said Christine Wee, ACLU of Arizona senior staff attorney. “Under Sheriff Penzone’s leadership, MCSO has continued to stop Latino and Black drivers at significantly higher rates than white drivers and has failed to repair a slow, broken process that allows for egregious delays in misconduct investigations. It should not take a contempt order to get Sheriff Penzone to finally address these glaring issues in the department.”
Sheriff Penzone and MCSO were tasked by the court to comply with two orders that were issued in the Melendres lawsuit:
- The First Order requires MCSO to develop new written policies, increase training for deputies, comprehensive data collection for every vehicle stop, and new mechanisms to communicate with the impacted Latino community.
- The Second Order was created to ensure a constitutionally adequate internal investigation process for deputy misconduct, including the requirement for MCSO to complete administrative misconduct investigations within 85 days from the start of the investigation.
In 2021, the ACLU of Arizona raised concerns over the substantial backlog of internal affairs cases at MCSO. A court-appointed expert found that MCSO’s internal affairs investigations unit had a backlog of 2,086 pending misconduct investigations and took an average of 611 days to complete a single investigation.
“The judge has given Sheriff Penzone and MCSO ample time and opportunity to actively engage in the reform process and fix the backlog of internal investigations — they have failed to do so,” said Raul Pina, member of the Community Advisory Board (CAB). “The backlog of complaints is exasperating — MCSO should be listening to and addressing community concerns. It can be disheartening to be a victim of deputy misconduct and be told your complaint will take over a year to investigate.”
“Today’s contempt order sends a clear message to Sheriff Penzone - take accountability or deal with the consequences,” said Sylvia Herrera, Ph.D., CAB member. “How can MCSO expect to gain the trust of the community when people see how long misconduct investigations go ignored? It’s clear that MCSO is not listening to concerns from the community, which can deter the public from filing complaints even more.”
Today’s ruling can be found here: https://www.acluaz.org/sites/default/files/2827_-_order_re_order_to_show_cause_2681_and_contempt_findings.pdf
More information on Melendres v. Penzone can be found here: https://www.acluaz.org/en/cases/ortega-melendres-v-penzone