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Elected as the anti-Arpaio, new Phoenix sheriff finds himself at center of nation's immigration debate

Elected as the anti-Arpaio, new Phoenix sheriff finds himself at center of nation's immigration debate
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone talks in Phoenix on Jan. 19 about his plans for his first 100 days in office. (Hannah Gaber / Arizona Republic)

In his first month in office, Paul Penzone had angered almost every political faction in Maricopa County. By his second month, he made sure to get the rest.

One of his first major moves was to break with his predecessor's controversial practice of keeping immigrants in jail longer to allow immigration authorities time to determine whether they were in the country illegally.

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That predecessor was former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, famous for pushing legal boundaries in his dealings with people suspected to be in the country illegally. Penzone, on the advice of his legal team, decided in February that the constitutional questions were too murky to continue the so-called immigration detainers.

But Penzone has refused to take another step demanded by immigrant advocates: Remove Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents from the jail entirely.

"ICE is staying in the jails," Penzone told the Los Angeles Times. "There are law enforcement agencies that have a responsibility for our borders."

Penzone is showing early that neither immigrant advocates nor hard-line conservatives may get what they want from the new sheriff in town.

"I've met with the Dreamers and I have a heart for them," said Penzone, referring to immigrants brought into the country illegally as children. "I don't want to see families broken. But I will not allow for people who are violent criminals in our community to come in and out of our jail system if they are also undocumented in this nation."

The head of the agency charged with protecting Maricopa County's 4 million residents was elected in large part to undo much of the damage his predecessor, Arpaio, did to relations with the Latino community.

I have a chance to wipe the board clean and rewrite the script, and that's what we're doing here.


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"I have a chance to wipe the board clean and rewrite the script, and that's what we're doing here," Penzone said.

But President Trump's executive orders aimed at tightening border security have the first-time elected official caught between the liberal change-minded constituents who helped elect him and a strict new federal immigration policy.

Arizona's most populous county has been home to some of the nation's most spectacular clashes over the duties of police officers when it comes to immigrants, but those who imagined a white knight riding into the Sheriff's Office and vanquishing Arpaio's controversial legacy with a stroke of his pen are sure to be disappointed with Penzone's measured approach.

So, too, will the conservative voters in the Phoenix exurbs who voiced hopes of "deportation squads" while then-Sheriff Arpaio campaigned with Trump.

The fate of a jail known as Tent City, the result of Arpaio's first act as sheriff in January 1993, gives both factions another chance to be displeased with Penzone.

Tent City houses inmates in Korean War-era tents, which reach temperatures in excess of 130 degrees in Arizona's punishing summer heat. Arpaio said the tents were an added deterrent for criminals. Civil liberties advocates criticize them as inhumane.

Penzone hasn't decided what he'll do with Tent City, but the political consequences are already clear to him.

"No matter what decision I make on Tent City, half the population will cheer, half the population will boo," Penzone said, adding that his predecessor's legacy was to satisfy only half of his constituency. "I will change the perception of this office by leading with a public safety law enforcement attitude and leaving politics for election cycles."

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A Democrat elected with 56% of the vote in November, the 49-year-old got his first job in law enforcement as a Phoenix police officer, rising within the organization to the rank of sergeant, where he ran the department's Silent Witness program for anonymous tips.

Later, as the department's liaison to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Penzone led a wiretap investigation that toppled a methamphetamine ring in Arizona. He retired after 21 years.

After narrowly losing to Arpaio in 2012, Penzone campaigned last year by attacking the department's shortcomings, highlighting investigations that found the department failed to investigate more than 400 alleged sex crimes. Penzone also highlighted the hefty legal fees incurred defending the department from civil rights lawsuits and the mistrust of the department expressed by Phoenix's Latino population.

"You don't fix that in a day and it's over with," Penzone said of improving relations with Latinos. "You invest that over a lifetime, and that's what we're doing right now."

Penzone has made repairing those relationships a top priority. He has deployed members of the department to new assignments to work directly with Latino groups, and has personally contacted the Mexican consulate and appeared at town halls in Phoenix's Latino neighborhoods.

An early test of those efforts came when a Phoenix woman in the U.S. illegally was detained at a regularly scheduled check-in with ICE in mid-February, setting off protests in Phoenix and at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration activists and attorneys in Arizona questioned why other immigrants in the country illegally should ever again trust the government and present themselves to immigration officials.

Such questions raise uncomfortable possibilities for law enforcement. Penzone, as a former police officer who worked with anonymous witnesses, says his greatest fear is missing crimes because members of the Latino community are too afraid to call the Sheriff's Office, much less file a complaint with their names attached.

"Oftentimes the ones we're speaking to are the ones who yell the loudest because they're most actively engaged," Penzone said. "But it's the softest voices in the neighborhoods that we have not yet heard that are as, if not more, important.

"People who have not had a voice [should] understand that we're here for everyone."

Carlos Garcia, director of immigrant advocacy group Puente Arizona, says he isn't yet sure what to make of Penzone. Unless and until the sheriff rejects ICE's presence in the jails, though, Garcia says Penzone will always face suspicion from more liberal Latinos in Phoenix.

"It's basic humanity. He can do his job and [still] not violate the rights of people by handing them to ICE," Garcia said.

Within his first 60 days, Penzone has said, he aims to bring the Sheriff's Office into line with modern-day law enforcement practices that Arpaio rejected, primarily the use of data to identify crime trends as well as community input into use-of-force policies.

He has also proposed ensuring that the Sheriff's Posse — a group of armed volunteers primarily deployed on search-and-rescue missions — has basic law enforcement certification.

Where Arpaio attempted to forge his own path on immigration enforcement and hoped the courts would uphold his decisions, Penzone says he is not a politician, but a law enforcement officer in a political post.

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"We're not an immigration enforcement agency, but we have to all be law-abiding," Penzone said.

His most obvious break with his predecessor is not in policy or party, but in his choice of a work space. Arpaio would greet visitors in his cavernous office atop a downtown skyscraper; Penzone instead leads them to small meeting rooms on the department's first floor.

But he's beginning to make himself comfortable. Asked how he's adjusting to Arpaio's office, he smirked.

"It's my office now."

Follow Nigel Duara on Twitter: @nigelduara

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