By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff whose office has been accused of a wide range of civil rights violations conditionally agreed Wednesday to take part in discussions with federal officials about ways to correct the alleged violations.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said that his office first needs the U.S. Justice Department to provide facts to back up its allegations that his office racially profiles Latinos, bases immigration enforcement on racially charged citizen complaints and punishes Hispanic jail inmates for speaking Spanish.
The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America has been a national political fixture who has built his reputation on jailing inmates in tents and dressing them in pink underwear, selling himself to voters as unceasingly tough on crime and pushing the bounds of how far local police can go to confront illegal immigration.
"I have a suspicion that politics might be involved in this, but we want to resolve (the case)," Arpaio said.
Joseph Popolizio, one of the lawyers representing the sheriff's office, said in a letter to Justice officials that Arpaio was ready to go to court if federal authorities refuse to provide the information to back up their claims.
The Justice Department didn't have any immediate comment on the letter.
The sheriff's office said it doesn't discriminate against Latinos and that Justice Department didn't provide facts to support its allegation that Arpaio's office has a culture of disregard for basic constitutional rights.
Popolizio said in his letter that constructive talks between Washington and the sheriff's office could occur only if the Justice Department backs up its allegations.
"We are merely requesting the opportunity to conduct our own weighing of the reliability of the evidence in your possession," Popolizio said.
The changes in the sheriff's office that Justice officials were seeking include training in constitutional policing and dealing with jail inmates with limited English skills, collecting data on traffic stops and immigration enforcement, and establishing a comprehensive disciplinary system that permits the public to make complaints against officers without fear of retaliation.
The civil rights allegations have led some Arpaio critics to call for the sheriff's resignation. Arpaio has said he won't resign and intends to seek a sixth term this year.
Separate from the civil rights probe, a federal grand jury has been investigating Arpaio's office on criminal abuse-of-power allegations since at least December 2009. That grand jury is examining the investigative work of the sheriff's anti-public corruption squad.
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