'Toughest sheriff' sued in race probe

America’s self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” is being sued by the US government for his “unprecedented” defiance over an investigation into alleged discrimination against Hispanics.

The US Justice Department said it was the first time in decades that a sheriff had refused to co-operate in one of its probes.

Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio had been given until August 17 to hand over documents the government had first asked for 15 months ago, when it started investigating alleged discrimination, unconstitutional searches and seizures and jail policies that discriminated against people with limited English skills.

Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the department’s civil rights division, said it was unfortunate the department had to sue to get the documents, which neither the agency nor Sheriff Arpaio would describe.

But Sheriff Arpaio called the lawsuit “a ruse” and said the government was trying to score points against the state, which is at the centre of an argument over illegal immigration since passing a law that mirrors many of the policies the sheriff has put into place in the greater Phoenix area.

“I think they know we have not been racial profiling, so what’s the next step - camouflage the situation, go the courts, and make it look like I’m not co-operating,” Sheriff Arpaio said.

The sheriff said he provided “hundreds of thousands” of reports but had turned over others because the department’s request was too broad.

Kevin Ryan, former US attorney for the Northern District of California and a law professor at the University of San Francisco, said he thought the department’s characterisation of Sheriff Arpaio’s behaviour as unprecedented was overstating it.

He said the contentious relationship between the sheriff and the department was no secret.

“You really can’t hold it against the sheriff and assume he’s guilty because he’s not rolling over for the Justice Department,” he said.

Sheriff Arpaio believes the department’s inquiry is focused on his immigration sweeps, patrols where deputies flood an area of a city – in some cases heavily Latino areas – to seek out traffic offenders and arrest other law-breakers.

Critics say the deputies pull people over for minor traffic infractions because of the colour of their skin so they can ask them for proof of citizenship.

The lawsuit says Sheriff Arpaio’s office signed agreements promising to co-operate with civil rights investigations and other reviews when it accepted government law enforcement grants.

The lawsuit is the latest action against Arizona by the US government.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security stripped Sheriff Arpaio’s office of its special powers to enforce government immigration laws and in May, the Obama administration urged the US Supreme Court to prevent Arizona from enforcing its employer sanctions law.

In July, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit to overturn portions of Arizona’s strict new immigration law that would require police officers to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are in the country illegally. A federal judge put that provision and most of the law on hold.

In a separate investigation, a grand jury in Phoenix is examining allegations that Sheriff Arpaio has abused his powers with actions such as intimidating county workers by arriving at their homes at nights and on weekends.

Arizona Republican senator Russell Pearce, author of the new Arizona law, called the Justice Department’s actions against Sheriff Arpaio a “witch hunt”.

“This is the game that’s played,” he said. “They couldn’t find any violations ... that’s why they’re very vague about what they want. It doesn’t take a very high IQ to figure out what’s going on with these folks.”

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