Judge Scolds Sheriff Paul Penzone for Leaving Community Meeting

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Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone

The federal judge overseeing the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office's progress in reducing racial bias chastised Sheriff Paul Penzone at a status conference on Tuesday following concerns that the agency was failing to take evidence of disparity seriously.

Arizona U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow cut right to the point.

“I was mildly nauseated when I read the briefings in this case,” said Snow. “And when I get this from the Sheriff’s Office, it makes me feel the office is not acting in good faith.”

The conference, held at the United States District Court of Arizona in downtown Phoenix, centered around questions about the sheriff and his agency’s behavior at an October meeting intended to build trust with the Latino community, who have borne the brunt of MCSO’s disparate treatment.

"I was mildly nauseated when I read the briefings in this case." U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow

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The hearing was requested by plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, in an ongoing lawsuit against the MCSO. In 2013, in the case known as Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres v. Arpaio, Snow found that the sheriff’s office, then under Sheriff Joe Arpaio, systematically violated the rights of Latino people in Maricopa County by subjecting them to racial profiling.

Because of this, the MCSO must follow several specific steps to address the agency's disparate treatment of Latino residents, including regularly studying racial bias in deputies’ traffic stops and holding recurring community meetings to update the affected Latino community on the agency's progress. Penzone, who took office in 2017 after voters denied Arpaio a seventh term in the 2016 election, is now tasked with heading up these efforts.

As only Phoenix New Times reported last month, Penzone left the most recent meeting in Maryvale on October 15 early, before community members could ask him questions in the open forum period, a move that upset many audience members who were present. It was also a potential violation of a June 3 court order that requires him to participate and address concerns at all of these meetings.

Snow also criticized the data scientist from the research group CNA, which conducted the most recent traffic study for the MCSO. The scientist told community members last month that “the analysis was not able to uncover actual evidence of bias,” in contradiction with the study’s findings.

“That is a flat lie,” Snow said. “It is a misstatement to the Latino community members present.”

Snow acknowledged that the study, which found Latino and black residents of Maricopa County were more likely to be searched, ticketed, and arrested than other residents, didn’t establish the cause of these disparate outcomes.

“But that is a very different thing than saying there is no actual evidence of bias, because there is,” Snow said.

Snow also said he was tired of getting into “little matches” over whether bias did or did not exist within the MCSO. He said there was proof enough, according to what was mandated in the court order, that the sheriff needed to take action.

“The goal is to have a sheriff’s department that takes necessary and reasonable steps to investigate whether bias exists,” Snow said.

Brian Palmer, Penzone’s attorney, denied that the office was hostile to efforts to build trust with the Latino community. He said the CNA representative, who was not present at the status hearing, was merely using a different way to explain the data because she was a statistician.

“I disagree,” Snow said. “She’s a statistician. She knows better.”

Palmer also said Penzone only left the October community meeting early because members of the news media started to turn their attention onto him, and he didn’t want to be a distraction.

The basis for that claim is unclear. Though community members were publicly asking questions following a presentation shortly before Penzone left, none of them addressed themselves as members of the media.

“Those meetings are intended to communicate information relative to our progress and challenges with the order,” Penzone said when pressed by New Times about this after the hearing. “And if it’s solely about a small group of individuals wanting to point fingers at the sheriff and make accusations outside the Melendres order, it becomes a distraction.”

The sheriff could not point to which questions posed by the community at the meeting he was referring to, or speak to what concerns they raised that he considered politically motivated accusations.

“I think we’re going to go around in circles over this,” he told New Times when asked to clarify.

It’s possible the sheriff was referring to a question by Salvador Reza, a community member who was at the Maryvale meeting, about how many Latino residents arrested during traffic stops had been deported through the MCSO’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Penzone continues to allow the immigration agents inside Maricopa County jails to screen the citizenship status of all inmates.

Reza said the cooperation with ICE also relates to Melendres, because it concerned MCSO’s findings that Latinos were more likely to be arrested during traffic stops. As disparity continues to exist, Latino community members are more likely to come in contact with ICE agents than their white peers. For community members who are undocumented, this can funnel deportation. “And how can you build trust with the community when you continue to allow ICE in your jails?” Reza asked Penzone at the October meeting.

In the end, Judge Snow told Penzone that the MCSO needed to do better, but didn’t motion to remove further control of Melendres efforts from the office to an outside monitor, or place Penzone in violation of the court order, as he threatened to do throughout the hearing.

“It was another scolding,” said Sylvia Herrera, an activist and a member of the Community Advisory Board, which was appointed to provide the sheriff's office with guidance on issues important to the Latino community. “But we’re seeing a pattern. Penzone’s being scolded, just as Arpaio was being scolded. But it reaches a point where you say, 'okay, the office is not following the order.'”

“I think the judge continues to have concerns over the outcomes that he’s seeing, and we’re working hard to get those things addressed,” Penzone said after the court hearing. “It’s going to probably take a high level of transparency, or just more detail about what we’re already doing. It’s a slow process, but we’ll stay the course.”