The scathing results of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation into the Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff's Office and its bias against Hispanic residents is likely to incense anyone with strong feelings about the state of immigration in this country, pro or con. But before Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his defenders start dismissing the three-year-old investigation as misguided and wholly political motivated, they ought to take a second look at the man behind it.
That would be Thomas E. Perez, the assistant attorney general for the department's civil rights division. And while Mr. Arpaio may have cultivated a reputation as the nation's "toughest sheriff," Mr. Perez is something at least as tough: a fiercely independent man motivated by a strong sense of right and wrong.
From his days as a Montgomery County councilman to his candidacy for Maryland attorney general and stint as the secretary of the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Mr. Perez never seems to back down from a fight. A one-time aide to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, the Harvard-educated lawyer has been one of Maryland's most progressive political voices.
Those who may think the investigation is merely a means to attract Latino voters to President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2012 greatly underestimate Mr. Perez and his dedication to the cause of civil rights and helping the poor and disadvantaged. He is nobody's shill. If anything, he earned a reputation in this state as someone who likes challenging authority regardless of party affiliation, whether that means advocating for the importing of Canadian drugs or legalized slot machines.
What Mr. Perez discovered in Maricopa County should be of concern to anyone who cherishes the U.S. Constitution. There has been a pattern of racial profiling of Latinos, unlawful stops and arrests, illegal retaliation against those who criticize the sheriff's policies, and a jail where those who aren't English-proficient are punished and denied "critical services that are provided to other inmates."
The quirky Mr. Arpaio has roots in Maryland, too. He was once a federal drug enforcement agent in Baltimore and attended the University of Maryland for a time. He's a hero to the anti-immigration crowd and those who think the meaner and nastier the jail, the better.
But make no mistake, what Mr. Perez and his colleagues have found in Arizona is a pattern of behavior that is not making anyone safer. Law-abiding citizens are getting caught up in a "web of unconstitutional activity." Investigators continue to look into allegations that the department used excessive force, didn't provide adequate policing services in Latino communities or failed to investigate allegations of sexual assaults.
What the Phoenix area needs in these challenging times is not the "toughest" sheriff but the smartest one available. And not speaking Spanish to Spanish-speaking inmates isn't smart. It only puts inmates and correctional officers at greater risk.
The findings ought to be an embarrassment not only to the people of Maricopa County but to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whom Mr. Arpaio has endorsed in the Republican presidential primary. Instead, Mr. Perry was caught last week defending the sheriff and promising that if elected president, he wouldn't allow similar enforcement action or sue "sovereign states for making decisions."
So much for civil rights in a Perry administration.
Incidentally, Mr. Perez has not chosen to sue the sheriff — at least not yet. In his speech announcing the investigation's findings, he said he would prefer to work collaboratively with Mr. Arpaio to institute reforms. He also made clear that he did not mean to impugn the character of sheriff's department employees, only to identify illegal policies and practices.
Such reasonableness is not the hallmark of a political rabble rouser, but it is of someone who is sincerely interested in problem solving. Consider, too, that the alternative would have been for Mr. Perez to ignore the pleas of innocent Latinos in the community. Now that would have been the cynical political move — currying favor with those who see Latino immigrants as a national scourge, something Sheriff Arpaio loves to do.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times