by Marc H. Morial, President and CEO, National Urban League
WASHINGTON - "I don't believe you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its angry, violent dogs literally biting six unarmed, nonviolent Negroes…if you would observe their ugly and inhuman treatment of Negroes here in the city jail." Martin Luther King, Jr.
In April of 1963, while confined to jail in Birmingham, Alabama for leading peaceful civil rights demonstrations in what was then "the most segregated city in America," Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter challenging a group of local ministers and the nation to speak out against the brutal, segregationist tactics of the infamous Birmingham police commissioner, Bull Connor. Forty-seven years later, in Maricopa County, Arizona, the nation is confronted with another police official who seems bent on defying the Constitutional rights of non-white, law-abiding citizens.
For more than a decade, Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio has been the subject of numerous investigations and lawsuits for inhumane treatment of prisoners and over-zealous enforcement of immigration laws which many claim amount to out-right racial profiling.
Since March, 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has been investigating Sheriff Arpaio for violations of the Civil Rights Act which forbids discrimination in programs receiving federal funds. DOJ has requested documents and interviews to ascertain whether the aggressive search and seizure tactics of Arpaio's office during its pursuit of illegal immigrants, violated the civil rights of law-abiding Latino citizens. For 18 months, Arpaio has refused to cooperate with the probe and on September 2nd of this year, the DOJ filed suit against Arpaio. Maricopa County stands to lose $113 million in federal funds if Arpaio does not produce proof that he is not engaging in racial profiling.
Arpaio's obstinate refusal to cooperate with a DOJ investigation is virtually unprecedented. According to the Justice Department, Arpaio is the first local law enforcement official in 30 years to refuse to provide documents in a federal civil rights inquiry. Arpaio's actions follow a long-standing pattern of abuse of power and anti-immigration behavior. In 2008, a federal judge ruled that Maricopa County jails failed to meet constitutional standards. Moreover, Sheriff Arpaio has publicly admitted that for years he has been employing many of the tactics contained in Arizona's controversial new immigration law, which the Justice Department has said illegally conflicts with federal statutes and undermines the nation's foreign policy.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio is becoming a symbol of rising anti-immigration fever throughout the nation. He is a throwback to the days when powerful and arrogant police officials openly blocked racial progress and defied federal law. Arizona ACLU Legal Director Dan Pochoda has said, "Sheriff Arpaio does not have the right to profile people because they look Latino regardless of their immigration status. His job is to uphold the law, not violate people's rights." We agree. Joe Arpaio calls himself the "toughest sheriff in America." But his abusive law enforcement and anti-immigration tactics make him look more like a modern day Bull Connor.