Penzone’s Sheriff's Office Still Has Racial Bias in Traffic Stops

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone Gage Skidmore/Flickr
The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office continues to exhibit racial bias in the way it conducts traffic stops, according to its annual traffic study released on Monday.

The office has been required to monitor its patrol activity since 2014, following a federal judge’s findings that the agency routinely violated the constitutional rights of Latino residents through racial profiling and traffic stops without reasonable cause. These traffic stop studies, which are supposed to be conducted annually, investigate whether racial disparity exists in the outcomes for drivers who are pulled over by Maricopa County deputies.

After a six-month delay and a new data collection method, MCSO’s most recent report found the race of the driver made a difference in the 24,499 traffic stops it made in the last year-and-a-half — particularly when it came to whether the individual would be searched, ticketed, and arrested. Black and Latino people were especially vulnerable to these disparities.

The new study is the first report of its kind that pulls data exclusively from Democratic Sheriff Paul Penzone’s tenure, suggesting that his new leadership has not quelled the racial discrimination rampant in the office during the days of former Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

"Although we believe we have seen improvement in areas of concern, this will provide a road map for next steps to enhance training and accountability for all of our traffic engagements," said Sergeant Calbert Gillett, a MCSO spokesperson, in a brief, prepared statement about the report on Wednesday afternoon.

Arpaio's legal downfall began on September 26, 2007, when Manuel Ortega Melendres, a legal immigrant from Mexico who possessed a valid visitor visa, was a passenger in a vehicle that was pulled over by MCSO deputies. Though the driver, a white male who deputies said they stopped for speeding, was not given a ticket or taken into custody, Melendres and another Latino passenger were asked to produce identification. Even after doing so, Melendres was taken into MCSO custody and held in jail for four hours, until he was taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who reviewed his visa and ordered his release.

Melendres, among others, became the plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio that would eventually find the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully targeted Latino drivers for traffic stops on the assumption that they were in the country illegally. In 2013, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow issued a court order that mandated MCSO engage in a series of actions to address the agency's disparate treatment of Latino residents, including a recurring analysis of racial disparities in traffic stops.

This study, released on September 30, is a bit different from past analyses. Previous studies were conducted in partnership with Arizona State University, and the last one assessed a 12-month period from 2016 to 2017, the first half occurring before Penzone took office. This study relies on a new partner, Virginia-based research group CNA, to conduct the analysis, and looks at MCSO enforcement between July 1, 2017 and December 30, 2018, an 18-month period entirely under Penzone’s tenure. Using Traffic and Criminal Software (TraCS) data, a program deputies use to document traffic stops, the study used a “matching” approach to compare stops that had similar characteristics other than the race of the driver, to see if racial disparities still existed along five traffic stop variables: stop length, searches, citations, arrests, and seizures.

This is where the new study matches up with past traffic stop analyses: Its findings indicate MCSO officers are still systemically discriminating on the road, and suggest a person’s experience with an MCSO deputy may still largely be shaped by their race. Hispanic and Black drivers were both more likely to be arrested for exhibiting the same behaviors or committing the same infractions as white drivers. They were also more likely to have their vehicles or bodies searched, and Hispanic drivers were more likely to receive tickets, as opposed to warnings, than non-Hispanic drivers.

“Awareness of implicit bias gives law enforcement agencies the opportunity to work with organizations and researchers on methods and training to reduce implicit bias and its effects,” the report states.

Both black and Hispanic groups were subject to longer stops than white drivers, but the study notes that this may largely be due to “extended stop indicators,” which slow down the stop process due to extenuating factors like cultural barriers or vehicle maintenance. While past years’ studies indicated that MCSO was making fewer traffic stops overall, this report notes that more recent data suggests that deputies may be making more stops per month in 2019, but stated definitive findings on this trend would not be released until the next annual report.

“The MCSO will use the analyses in this report to better understand traffic stop behavior in the organization and better serve the residents of Maricopa County,” the report states, suggesting that a possible remedy could come in the form of developing guidance for how officers can reduce racial disparities in traffic stops.

But community members appointed to oversee MCSO’s compliance with the Melendres court order, like the Community Advisory Board, an independent five-member board created to advise on issues related to the Latino community, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, a plaintiff in the case, said this kind of guidance is already supposed to be in place.

“This report is concerning, given that MCSO has mandated training on bias-free policing,” said Dr. Sylvia Herrera, a CAB member and adviser with Barrio Defense Committees. “What evaluative measures are utilized on effectiveness of training? These are major deficiencies in MCSO compliance.”

"The lag time for this report is a serious concern," Raul Pina, another CAB member and CEO of Dare2Dream Foundation. "For MCSO, it's one more compliance piece. For residents still being impacted by racial profiling, this data indicates life-changing interactions are still happening at the patrol stop level."
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Hannah Critchfield was an editorial fellow for Phoenix New Times starting in 2019.