After months of negotiations failed to reach a settlement over the allegations, the U.S. Justice Department took the rare step Thursday of suing. "We have invariably been able to work collaboratively with law enforcement agencies to build better departments and safer communities," Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez said. Arpaio and his department "have been a glaring exception," said Perez, who heads the civil rights division.
The main issue that caused talks to break down last month was federal officials' insistence that Arpaio agree to a court-appointed monitor for the department. Arpaio objected, saying it would undermine his authority. "I am not going to surrender my office to the federal government," a visibly angry Arpaio said at an afternoon news conference. "I will fight this to the bitter end." The lawsuit means that a federal judge will decide the escalating, long-standing dispute.
The Justice Department, which had been investigating Arpaio on civil rights allegations for more than three years and faced a similar impasse earlier in the investigation, said it was left with no choice but to sue the sheriff to seek the court-appointed monitor it wants to oversee the law enforcement agency. The DOJ had filed another lawsuit against Arpaio that alleged his office refused to fully cooperate with a request for records and access to jails and employees. It was settled last summer after the office complied.
The latest lawsuit comes as part of the DOJ's effort to enforce a law passed after the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case and the Los Angeles riots. It bans police from systematically violating constitutional rights. Normally, settlements are filed in court as part of lawsuits that aren't contested by the police agencies. Since the law's passage, federal officials said that only once before has the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against a police department with which they were unable to reach an agreement. In 1999, they filed a lawsuit against Columbus, Ohio, police, but the two sides eventually settled, Perez said.