Dozens of Latino families comprising more than 100 people were packed into the Maryvale Community Center on October 15 to hear from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and Sheriff Paul Penzone.
The court-ordered community meeting was intended to strengthen a partnership with the Latino community and to extinguish racial discrimination in the office that evolved under former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who Penzone replaced in the 2016 election.
But partway through the event, Penzone disappeared — a fact unbeknownst even to the meeting's facilitator, retired police chief Robert Warshaw, who called him up to speak toward the gathering's conclusion.
Murmured phrases including "coward" and "the judge is going to be so pissed when he finds out he left" rippled through the audience. Warshaw quickly pivoted, opening the floor up for questions.
"My question is: Why isn’t the Sheriff here?” asked the first person who spoke.
Penzone had, in fact, attended the meeting, but left early, retreating out the back amid questions about the office's implicit bias in enforcement and partnerships with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The move, which could not be explained by other MCSO deputies present, upset many attendees, including some who felt it demonstrated the office's ongoing indifference to the concerns of the very residents it has repeatedly failed to police with equity.
New Meeting Place
After a long, contentious past and a present in which the harsh immigration law SB 1070 (albeit a stripped-down version) remains the law of the land in Arizona, community meetings like these are expected to build trust between the sheriff's office and Latino community.
In 2013, a federal judge found that the office, then under Arpaio, systematically violated the rights of Latinos in Maricopa County by subjecting them to racial profiling, a case known as Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres v. Arpaio. Because of this, MCSO is currently under oversight by a court-appointed monitor. The office must also hold regular community meetings until MCSO is found to be in compliance with the federal court's mandate — in other words, until racial disparities no longer exist in its enforcement.
The meetings allow MCSO to update the community on its progress, and provide an opportunity for community members to make comments regarding MCSO's policies and practices. Penzone has assumed responsibility for overseeing this process since taking office.
The October 15 community meeting was the first since U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow removed the meetings from the sheriff's control earlier this year, after finding that Penzone failed to conduct the meetings at locations and times that were accessible to members of the Latino community most affected by Arpaio's unconditional policing. The evening meeting was instead facilitated by court monitors, a team of former law enforcement officers, and attorneys selected by the judge to ensure MCSO continues to move toward compliance.
Penzone’s departure from the back of the room, though unannounced and unexplained by remaining MCSO officers, occurred around the time the community members began asking questions about his office’s recently released traffic study.
The study, which is also court-mandated, found racial disparities still exist in MCSO’s enforcement at traffic stops, with Hispanic (the analysis used this term rather than “Latino”) or black drivers more likely to be arrested and searched when pulled over by MSCO deputies than drivers of other races.
“But it’s important to note that the study only found a 3 percent difference between these groups,” said a representative from CNA's Institute for Public Research, which MCSO contracted with to conduct the analysis.
When an audience member asked how many people that 3 percent represented, the presenter could not answer.
“How many of the people arrested in those traffic stops were taken to Fourth Avenue Jail, and then were taken to ICE custody from there?” asked Salvador Reza, a local community organizer. MCSO officials said they don't have this data.
“MCSO has been doing these studies for four years,” said Molly Brizgys, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which represents plaintiffs in the Melendres case. “Why hasn’t this gotten better?”
Around this time, the Democratic sheriff shuffled out, according to several audience members standing near him in the back.
“It Feels Like Things Are Worsening"
The meeting continued with a presentation on MCSO officers’ use of body cameras, another requirement of the court. The office is engaged in a $6.2 million, five-year contract with Axon, a private company that provides technology and weapons to law enforcement, to ensure all of its officers are equipped with cameras.
Following the presentation, questions about the cameras included who turns on a body camera (“The deputy himself”), whether a body camera could be turned off in certain tactical moments (the short answer was "yes"), and how long a Freedom of Information Act request for body camera footage takes to process (“It depends”).
“At what point are they required to turn on the camera, at what point are they required to turn off the camera, and if they don’t follow that policy, what are the consequences?” local immigration attorney Ayensa Millan asked the presenter. Millan was recently appointed by Penzone to sit on the Community Advisory Board, an independent five-member board (also a result of Melendres) created to advise on issues related to the Latino community.
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Answers were often long and technical, punctuated by pauses to translate from English into Spanish — one officer repeatedly had to be reminded to stop rushing through answers in English — as MCSO stressed that each body camera usage depended on the context of the situation.
“I feel like the more they answered questions, the more they lost the trust of the community,” said Louie Lujan, a lobbyist who works for Millan. He said that his impression was not necessarily from what the deputies were saying, but the manner in which they were presented.
“It feels like things are worsening," said Sylvia Herrera, another
Community Advisory Board member. "Penzone leaving translates to the community that this is something he's doing because he has to, not because he cares about partnering with the community."
The audience filtered out as the meeting concluded, and some people continuing to talk in groups outside the building. These groups symbolized some of the past 11 years since Melendres v. Arapio was filed — there were original plaintiffs from the organizations Somos America and ACLU speaking near a cluster of court monitors, who'd flown in from places as far as North Carolina and Florida to facilitate the meeting. Standing nearby, a group of MCSO deputies exchanged words before loading into their patrol SUVs. Bit by bit, with small nods to each other, the three parties left.