Joe Arpaio bills himself as a tough-talking lawman, but he turned down the volume in an Arizona court of law this week.
The Maricopa County sheriff took the stand in the civil suit alleging that his department violated people's rights by profiling Latinos. Media reports agree that the sheriff, famous for his strident and ferocious verbal attacks on illegal immigrants during numerous television and other media appearances, was far quieter while on the stand Tuesday. Arpaio explained that he was suffering from the flu.
“We don't arrest people because of the color of their skin,” Arpaio insisted during testimony throughout the day.
Latinos represented by various groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, are suing Arpaio and his office, arguing that Maricopa County officers systematically profile Latinos during law-enforcement sweeps in Latino areas in Phoenix. Latinos were pulled over during traffic stops without probable cause because they were Latino, the group alleges.
There is no jail time or financial penalty involved in the case, which is the first time the sheriff's office has had to defend itself in a court of law against the charge of racial profiling. The suit is also a taste of what will be argued in a broader federal civil rights suit filed in May.
If successful, the plaintiffs could force changes in how the sheriff’s office operates. The current trial, before Judge G. Murray Snow, is expected to run into next week.
The patrols, which were suspended in October, have long been a source of irritation in the Latino and civil rights communities, both locally and nationally. Arpaio, who is running for reelection, has become a darling of conservative circles for his stand against illegal immigration.
In the past, Arpaio has referred to illegal immigrants as dirty, but insisted Tuesday that those statements were taken out of context. He added that if a person were to cross the U.S.-Mexico border on foot over four days in the desert, that person “could be dirty,” according to an Associated Press report of his testimony.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs also questioned a 2007 Arpaio comment on national television in which he said a comparison to the Ku Klux Klan was “an honor.” On Tuesday, Arpaio denied considering the comparison an honor, adding that he had no use for the KKK.
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