July 24, 2012

Ariz. sheriff backtracks on praise for KKK

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been accused of being prejudiced, said he no longer considers comparisons to the Ku Klux Klan "an honor."

The Associated Press

PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff known nationally for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration took the witness stand Tuesday and faced allegations that his trademark immigration sweeps amount to racial profiling against Hispanics.

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Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

AP

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Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, testifying in defense at a civil trial, was questioned about statements that critics say show prejudiced thinking.

Plaintiffs' lawyers asked Arpaio about a statement in which he called illegal immigrants "dirty" and another that seemed to express admiration for the Ku Klux Klan.

Arpaio said the statement about immigrants was taken out of context, adding 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. That's the context on how I used that word."

He also was asked about a 2007 appearance on a national cable television news show. CNN host Lou Dobbs spoke with Arpaio at the time about comparisons between his department and the KKK, about which the sheriff said, "I think it's an honor. It means we are doing something."

Arpaio on Tuesday said he said he doesn't consider the comparison an honor, adding that he has no use for the KKK.

Arpaio also made headlines recently when he said his investigators had proven President Barack Obama's birth certificate was a fake. But on Tuesday, Arpaio wasn't projecting his usual bluster. He said he has the flu and was speaking in a hushed tone, clearing his throat often.

Plaintiffs say Arpaio's office disproportionately singled out Latinos in the immigration patrols and accuse him of launching some sweeps based on emails and letters that don't allege crimes, but complain only that "dark-skinned people" are congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish.

A group of Latinos who say they have been discriminated against filed the civil lawsuit against the lawman who makes jail inmates sleep in tents and wrote an autobiography titled "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Arpaio has long denied racial profiling allegations and said Tuesday, "We don't arrest people because of the color of their skin."

During the sweeps that are at the center of the case, sheriff's deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.

Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by Arpaio's office since January 2008, according to figures provided by the sheriff's department, which hasn't conducted any such patrols since October.

The plaintiffs aren't seeking money in the suit. They are seeking a declaration that Arpaio's office racially profiles Latinos and an order requiring policy changes.

If Arpaio loses the case, he won't face jail time or fines.

The trial began last week and is expected to close next week. It will be decided by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow.

The judge hasn't ruled on the ultimate question of racial profiling, but said in a December ruling that a fact finder could interpret some of Arpaio's public statements as endorsements of racial profiling.

The lawsuit marks the first case in which the sheriff's office has been accused of systematic racial profiling and will serve as a precursor for a similar yet broader civil rights lawsuit filed against Arpaio in May by the U.S. Department of Justice.

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