In May, 2013, Judge Murray Snow found that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), led by Joe Arpaio, was guilty of racial profiling. In October, the judge ordered a series of reforms to be overseen by a court appointed monitor, Robert Warshaw. One part of the order was a requirement to hold an ongoing series of community meetings. Last night at Frank Elementary School in Guadalupe, Arizona there was the third of these meetings. Meant as a means to build a relationship between MCSO and the community, it was a meeting in which the audience, which, by one estimate, was only about 40 to 50 per cent Guadalupe townspeople and the rest outsiders, seemed alternatively skeptical, angry, and, in the end, unmoved by the information they heard. At the heart of the issues is a question of legitimacy and whether or not MSCO under Joe Arpaio can develop it within the town limits of Guadalupe.
Guadalupe is unique within the Phoenix Metropolitan area. A small township, it is the only area that is policed by the MCSO. Each of the other cities, such as Phoenix, Mesa, Tempe, Glendale, and Scottsdale, has their own police department. Guadalupe does not. Instead, it contracts with MCSO for $1.4 million annually to receive policing services. It is a community that has its fair share of problems. According to Father David Myers, it graduates just two per cent of the students who start first grade. From conversations I've had with former gang members, one might see drug use as problematic. Moreover, gang members from Guadalupe seem to have a reputation when they get locked up. In prison, they often get labeled as security threat groups, labels often reserved for members of prison gangs. Additionally, it’s a community that suffers from high unemployment.
As I walked around the school looking for the meeting, I met a woman who was also trying to find the entrance. Guadalupe is a small town and that I wasn’t from there was evident to anyone from there. She asked me who I was and I explained to her that I had been volunteering with From Gangs to Jobs and was interested in what was about the views of the community towards MCSO.
“Do you know why this is happening here?” she asked me. I, in fact, did not. “Six years ago to this very day, Guadalupe was the site of a big Sheriff operation. They had fifty deputies in the [less than] one square mile that is Guadalupe. You know with so many deputies, they couldn’t come back empty handed. So they were literally stopping everybody who they could find. It didn’t matter whether they were walking down the street they were stopped.”
I found a seat near the front of the room. Behind me was a man who had lived in Guadalupe for over twenty years. A man perhaps in his sixties, he was there because he was upset at the treatment that he and other members of the community received. He told me a story in which he had been pulled over with his wife and searched by the sheriff. “All of the police are well behaved,” he said, “except for Arpaio’s men. They are racists.”
The public trickled in until the hall was probably about seventy-five per cent full, perhaps 250 people. Afterwards, several people commented to the monitor team that they had only just found out about the meeting that day and said that the lack of turnout was due to the lack of notice. Noticeable amongst the members of the audience was a man whose shirt read “Arrest Arpaio, not the people” and a group of "Pasqua Yaquis" who were dressed in matching shirts and holding decorated bamboo poles. I would later find out that those individuals were not, in fact, from Guadalupe, a fact expressed to me by both one of the sheriffs there and Father Myers. This fact changed my view of the following proceedings as they had been, at least in part, hijacked for political gain.
The meeting began with the court monitor and his deputy, a Cuban American form Miami, explaining what their role was – they oversee the implementation of the court’s order – and what they needed from the community – cooperation. The ACLU was represented by Alessandra Soler, the Executive Director of ACLU of Arizona and MSCO was represented by Deputy Chief Jerry Sheridan, both of whom offered remarks. Chief Sheridan offered a story about his own experience as a young deputy fresh from New York. He fondly described how one Christmas a woman gave him a warm package and thanked him for his service, as he was unfamiliar with Hispanic tradition. He was puzzled to what that package was and inside were warm tamales. asked for the community to move on from the past and help to work for a better future and listed some of the things MSCO has been trying to do.
After Chief Sheridan ceded the floor, we finally got to the meat and bones of the meeting: an update of the results from the First Quarterly Report on MSCO, published on September 18th. Of the 87 requirements that MCSO was ordered to follow, it was not in compliance with 76 of them. A sarcastic laugh in the background seemed to prompt Mr. Warshaw to remind people that change comes slowly and people cannot expect everything to be met within six months or even one year. Of particular concern, the monitor highlighted the lack of training for conducting internal reviews, the lack of an Early Identification System to weed out bad deputies, and the majority of MSCO district offices were closed after 5pm.
Eventually the floor was opened up. Several individuals recounted stories of mistreatment. As each person spoke, they seemed frustrated or even angry. Some people came to the point of trembling in their rage. One man told a story of being arrested and accused of crimes he did not commit, being acquitted both times. Another man told a story of a sheriff’s deputy breaking his door and the department telling him to ask the tribe to fix it. One woman, a professor, said that she too had been arrested and was critical of the lack of MCSO efforts to learn about Yaqui culture. Another man, a member of the "Yaqui" group took exception to the Deputy Chief’s anecdote about “Hispanic culture,” (a criticism that seemed completely misplaced). At one point, the town mayor, Rebecca Jimenez, spoke up to back up the claims of the others, lending them legitimacy. Others asked questions, some of which were responded to.
At times the speakers lashed out at a variety of issues which they considered important, such as jail treatment and emergency response times. Some questioned why Arpaio had not been imprisoned and questioned whether or not they could have justice with him being left to be free. Several of these issues went unaddressed, particularly the ones that were outside of the scope of the monitor's job. It was clear that the crowd was hostile to MCSO. That’s why they had shown up, to voice their displeasure. Unfortunately several of the speakers were there for clear political purposes and hijacked the proceedings for their own interests. At first, I found the latent hostility that seemed to be towards the court appointed monitor to be interesting. However, upon learning of the political actors and how they appropriated that space rather inappropriately, that hostility seemed false.
Two speakers had views which underscored the real question at stake here: legitimacy.
The first was the priest for Guadalupe, Father Myers, who also happens to be a lawyer. Though he’s a gringo, Father David has lived in Guadalupe for more than forty years. He felt that there is an adversarial nature between MCSO and the community where each side feels that there is a “gang” of people attacking the other. He suggested that there was not solution with MCSO and that the town would be better off using the money it spends on the contract to set up its own police department which could be in tune with the needs of the community. In other words, Father David was expressing a view that seemed to indicate that the people of Guadalupe would not legitimate the sheriff under any circumstance. That pessimistic critique seemed to resonate with the crowd.
The second speaker was the man who was afforded the final slot to comment. Unfortunately he was one of the hijackers. Insisting in speaking in Spanish at first, and asking the assistant monitor to translate, he eventually switched into flawless English. It was as if it was a power play, in some regards. He criticized the whole process, effectively saying that the courts had no legitimacy as his people were in the community first. It was a clearly aggressive statement that indicated that he felt that there was no legitimacy with the court actions. It seemed to me to be an extreme position akin to antigovernment zealots like sovereign citizens. The anger was the same as was the refusal to legitimate government institutions. He made a mockery of the process. Though his anger is real, he abused the forum for personal gain. He took from the people of Guadalupe their moment to express their views.
As the meeting closed, it was clear that many in attendance were angry. It seemed as if many didn’t believe that the monitor could affect change. Some seemed to have unrealistic expectations for change. Others resented the lack of discipline exacted on deputies who abuse their power. “Why can't they just be fired?” one woman asked, failing to understand the process involved in investigating complaints and building cases. In an incredibly complex problem, it was as if many sought a panacea, one that simply wasn’t available. And without it in sight, they refused to believe that anything could possibly change for them.
Not all was lost though. While anger and mistrust were dominant themes in the discourse, it was encouraging to see several members of the audience stay after the meeting and interact with the monitor team. Not only that, several individuals interacted with the different sheriff’s department employees who were in attendance and remained to answer questions until the last of the audience left. As the crowed thinned, I took an opportunity to talk to Chief Sheridan who emphasized the drug presence in the community as a reason for tough enforcement. Nonetheless he said, “I got really upset hearing some of these stories we heard tonight. If they are true, that is certainly wrong.”
Whether or not legitimacy can be rebuilt, remains to be seen. The consequences of it failing to be, however, do also.