The federal government followed up its two-year investigation of Maricopa County's jails Friday by filing a lawsuit realleging inmate abuse and official indifference to that abuse.
That lawsuit will be dropped if Sheriff Joe Arpaio abides by a settlement agreement which calls for a new use-of-force policy, new guidelines on the use of nonlethal weapons and many other conditions.
The lawsuit and settlement is precisely the kind of negotiated end to the investigation that federal officials predicted two years ago when the probe into the jails was first announced.
Yet at a press conference held Friday jointly by U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano and Sheriff Arpaio, both attempted to convince reporters that the settlement was an unqualified endorsement of Arpaio and his methods.
Arpaio bragged that despite the investigation and lawsuit, he wouldn't change any of his practices.
Napolitano, meanwhile, who was spending her final day as Arizona's top federal lawyer, called the lawsuit a "technicality," and dismissed it as "a lawyer's paper."
Copies of that paper were not available until several hours after the performance was over and television crews had left.
It contrasts sharply with Napolitano's and Arpaio's sunny exhibition.
"Jail inmates are subject to use of excessive force and use of excessive and improper mechanical restraints by Jail employees, and Defendants fail to protect Jail inmates from such actions," reads the federal complaint, which was filed against Arpaio, Maricopa County, and each of the county's five supervisors.
"Defendants have been consciously aware of, but deliberately indifferent to [such use of force] for a substantial period of time," it continues. "Defendants have failed to address adequately the misconduct described . . . though they consciously knew of that misconduct. . . . Unless restrained by this Court, Defendants will continue to engage in the conduct. . . . Such conduct and practices have and will cause inmates confined in the Jail irreparable harm."
That language echoes a March 1996 Department of Justice report which criticized the use of stun guns and restraint chairs in Maricopa County's jails as well as the way the Sheriff's Office handled inmate grievances.
When Napolitano was asked if the newly filed complaint repeated those allegations, she answered: "They reallege the allegations but dismiss them."
But no mention of a dismissal is made in the federal complaint.
A separate motion for conditional dismissal was also filed Friday: It would drop the lawsuit only if Arpaio meets the standards of the settlement agreement.
Napolitano all but assured that Arpaio would be found in compliance and the lawsuit would be dropped.
Napolitano was asked if the federal government was actually rescinding its earlier finding that Arpaio's jails are, in effect, houses of torture.
Napolitano refused to comment.
The government's complaint refers to inmate abuse, and the press release put out by Napolitano's office claims credit for convincing Arpaio to make significant improvements in his jails, but in front of the cameras of local television stations, Napolitano seemed dedicated to promoting a different story: her harmony with Arpaio.
That prompted a reporter to ask if she was motivated by a need to placate Arpaio before possibly running for governor in 1998. Napolitano answered that the coincidence of her leaving office and announcing the agreement was accidental.
Arpaio, meanwhile, picked up on the question and joked that he might end up facing Napolitano for the state's highest post.
Lost in the levity, however, was much discussion of conditions in Arpaio's jails.
Attorney Nick Hentoff, who has brought several lawsuits over those conditions, was astonished at Napolitano's performance.
"The federal government doesn't file lawsuits as technicalities," he said.
Noting that in the 17-year history of the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, under which the lawsuit against Arpaio was filed, the federal government had conducted about 150 investigations--an average of about 10 a year--Hentoff said: "By filing this lawsuit, the federal government has put Arpaio on its 10-most-wanted list of the worst jailers in America."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.