PHOENIX — When federal courts get involved with local police departments the price tag can soar.
In Arizona’s Maricopa County, an outside monitor is now in place to ensure that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies comply with a court order to prevent racial profiling.
The court order is the result of a federal judge’s finding last year that the Sheriff’s office discriminated against Latino drivers in its high-profile immigration enforcement efforts.
The monitor is just one of many reforms coming to one of the most well-known local law enforcement agencies in the country, and those changes are starting to add up.
MCSO Sgt. Christopher Dowell is part of a small team tasked with the complicated job of compliance.
“The supplemental order is 59 pages,” Dowell said during a recent interview in the department SUV he uses as a patrol vehicle. “I’ve read the supplemental order 20 times.”
So what’s in those 59 pages?
For starters, how deputies make traffic stops and interact with the public is changing.
“We do not inquire about their immigration status,” Dowell said.
Deputies must go through new training to prevent racial profiling.
“Every traffic stop will be documented,” Dowell said. “It will be documented hopefully digitally, if we can get the technology to move along quickly.”
The first round of mandatory changes will take effect at the end of March, when deputies will have to record the length and reason for making a stop, as well as their impression of the driver’s race or ethnicity.
Eventually, deputies or patrol cars will be outfitted with video cameras. And the department will put a new system in place to monitor deputy discipline and performance.
Actually, Dowell is excited about that last bit.
“Those are things we wanted to move into but just didn’t have the money for,” Dowell said. “So now we are going to be able to move into it. This order is going to allow us to move forward a lot quicker than we would have been able to do.”
All this at an estimated cost $22 million in the first year and a half, plus an annual $10 million for the next five years. Add to that a potential $9 million in attorneys’ fees for the drawn-out legal battle that brought all this on.
Given how tight county finances have been lately, it’s possible this expense could lead to cuts in other programs.
“You know, we are all operating from the same checking account, it’s the taxpayers’ money,” said Denny Barney, chairman of the County Board of Supervisors. “And frankly we are going to continue to work hard to balance everything doing everything we are mandated to do with the state.
University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said though court-ordered reforms are expensive up front, they may prevent more costs down the line — such as lawsuits from people who believe they have been mistreated by officers.
And Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has had it’s share of those.
“The court forces them to invest and fix themselves even if they don’t want to at great cost,” Harris said. “If they do it and do it properly, they will be in a position to serve their public better and not incur damages in the future to individuals.”
The order has the potential to make one of the country’s most controversial law enforcement agencies first rate, Harris said.
“If the leadership of the department and the municipalities it serves have invested themselves in it, rather than resisting it, what you will have is a department that will be remade,” Harris said.
Some of Arpaio’s harshest critics say the court-ordered reforms should be a wake-up call to voters.
“I think this is a bargain — $22 million — given that everything that happened,” said Randy Parraz, a local activist who ran an unsuccessful campaign to recall the sheriff after his 2012 re-election.
“We have to figure out this is what it costs to have a sheriff that is this detached, and this incompetent and someone who is this incapable of adopting policies that are within the law," Parraz said.
But in a recent letter to the U.S. Attorney General, Arpaio said county taxpayers shouldn’t have to pick up the tab.
He said federal agents taught his deputies the very practices that prompted the court’s intervention, so he argued the federal government should pay for the reforms.
For his part, Parraz has his own equally unlikely idea of where the money should come from: Arpaio’s campaign chest.
“He was able to raise money, on his practices of going after Latinos and immigrants,"
Parraz said. “He raised money from lots of racists around the country. We should be able to use that money to pay down this debt.”
In fact, just this month, Arpaio announced his campaign war chest got a $3.5 million bump in 2013.
That’s a new fundraising record for a county politician one year after re-election.