Sheriff Paul Penzone Cited for Contempt, Faces Steep Fines in Federal Lawsuit

A federal judge held Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in contempt of court.
A federal judge held Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in contempt of court. Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
A federal judge has held Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone in contempt of court in a case that dates back to the reign of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow filed the contempt order on Tuesday, finding that Penzone had "not taken all reasonable steps" to address a severe backlog of internal investigations into complaints of misconduct.

"The backlog, despite Sheriff Penzone's knowledge of it, only gets worse," Snow wrote. "He leaves the court with few options for obtaining compliance with its orders."

If Penzone fails to address the concerns in the contempt finding, the county could face significant fines.

“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," Christine Wee, senior attorney with the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a prepared statement. The ACLU has worked on the lawsuit for more than a decade.

Penzone said he understood Snow's decision but disagreed with it.

"My office is currently in compliance with 92% of the order that focuses on internal investigations," Penzone wrote in a statement about the contempt citation. "Our investigations are consistently found to be high quality, imposing appropriate discipline." But the volume of cases was simply "overwhelming," he added.

"Public safety remains my  top priority while continuing to come into compliance with the court's requirements. We will continue to move forward," Penzone added.

The court case, Melendres v. Arpaio, dates back to 2007, when Arpaio was sheriff. It began as a class-action challenge to the agency's widespread racial profiling practices — leading to Arpaio's 2017 criminal contempt conviction. Arpaio was ultimately pardoned by former President Donald Trump.

Now, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is under the watchful eye of a court-appointed monitor, Robert Warshaw, and must comply with a host of court-ordered mandates. One of those is that the agency's internal affairs division, the Professional Standards Bureau, must conduct timely and thorough investigations of complaints of misconduct by sheriff's office employees.

But the division, which has been understaffed for years, has not been doing so. Misconduct investigations in MCSO take an average of 611 days to be completed. Large-scale cases involving sworn personnel — such as sheriff's deputies — take an average of more than 800 days.

"MCSO now has 2,137 pending investigations," Snow wrote in the contempt finding. "Each of its investigators, on average, completes 17 investigations a year." From 2016 through 2021, MCSO maintained the same number of investigators — 26 — despite claims that it was increasing staffing.

In the judge's contempt finding, he outlined a series of new mandates that Penzone must follow — or face significant penalties.

The office now has 60 days to hire seven new investigators to fill positions that have remained vacant for years, despite being funded in the department's budget. Once they are filled, Penzone isn't allowed to let the number of investigators fall below 26, according to the contempt citation.

If vacancies remain despite the order, the county will be forced to pay a monthly fine into a staffing fund for the internal affairs unit. And the fine is hefty: it will be equal to three times the annual salary and cost to recruit and train one sergeant with Professional Standards Bureau. In October, Snow proposed that the fine be five times the cost for one sergeant. That could mean fines of hundreds of thousands of dollars in just the first few months should the sheriff's office fail to comply.

In his order, Snow also gave Warshaw new oversight ability over the Professional Standards Bureau. Warshaw will now have authority to direct policy in the bureau, audit investigations, and reverse decisions in investigations if necessary.

What comes next will depend on how effectively Penzone manages to tackle the backlog. He will be required to submit monthly status updates on the state of the backlog to Snow. For now, though, there are still 2,137 cases to go.
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk

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