Although circumstances vary, the numerous cases of injury or death involving the sheriff's office for which Maricopa County has paid more than $13.7 million in claims over the past decade have one thing in common: Sheriff Joe Arpaio accepts absolutely no responsibility.
He and his top officers insist policies and procedures are just fine and don't need improvement, and that all bad outcomes are the fault of bad guys, not sheriff's deputies.
As the Tribune's Jennifer Ryan reported on Sunday, the rising toll of liability claims racked up against Arpaio's department is worrying some county officials, including Supervisor Fulton Brock of Chandler. “I'm always concerned anytime we have incidences, especially if someone has expired,” Brock told Ryan. “It's just a catastrophe when someone dies in incarceration.”
Not that every such case is the fault of sheriff's deputies. Arpaio and his department deal with the dregs of society — individuals that are self-destructive as well as homicidal. Some of those taken into custody have life-threatening levels of narcotics coursing through their veins. Some are berserk, in the fullest and most frightening sense of the word.
But not all who enter Arpaio's domain fit that profile. And nearly all have yet to be convicted of any offense. They are to be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. And even then, the supreme law of the land mandates that they be treated humanely even as they pay their debt to society.
No one is to be abused while in custody. Furthermore, law enforcement personnel are entrusted not only with protecting the public from harm, but with preventing harm to the inmates in their custody — and that includes self-destructive behavior.
Every injury, and certainly every death, that occurs within our jails represents a crack in the system. And while it is unreasonable to expect perfection of any governmental agency, we should expect — even demand — that our top law enforcement officials are doing all they can to improve the system and seal the cracks.
Yet that is not what we hear from Arpaio and his top brass. Arpaio publicly criticized the county's $8.25 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by the family of Scott Norberg, who suffocated while strapped to a restraint chair. Jack MacIntyre, the sheriff's director of intergovernmental affairs, told Ryan flatly that “The officers followed policy.”
Asked if whether the sheriff's office would review its auto-chase policy in light of several deaths and injuries resulting from crashes, MacIntyre responded: “I think the office will look and evaluate it, but will they stop pursuing the bad guys? I don't think so.”
It sounds as though the “evaluation,” if one occurs at all, will be a waste of time. It sounds as though minds are already made up.
Polls show the public clearly is satisfied with America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff. Indeed, law enforcement ought to be tough.
But law enforcement must also be smart, humane and well-trained. And as evidenced by this growing list of liability settlements, Arpaio's department falls short in those categories.
The disturbing pattern of injurious and fatal incidents is accompanied by a conspicuous absence of official concern and culpability. That's the stuff of negligence and malfeasance — and mammoth jury awards.