Term 'Racial Profiling' Sparks Language Debate In MCSO Lawsuit

April 18, 2014

On Thursday a federal judge overseeing the racial profiling case ordered Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to begin distributing a statement to his staff. It summarizes the court’s findings and corrects misinformation agency leaders spread to deputies.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow reprimanded a senior level official at the agency last week after he was caught on tape bungling the details of the order in a deputy training. He questioned another deputy chief after a video showed him mischaracterizing the order at a community meeting.

Then this week, in an interview with KJZZ, MCSO Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre made this statement about the judge’s findings:

“There is no equivocation here. Despite the fact of reports in the media, there is no court finding that the sheriff’s office racially profiled.”

In an order last May, Snow found the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had a policy of using race as a factor in making law enforcement decisions, and had violated the constitutional rights of Latino drivers.

Media accounts often use the term "racial profiling" to describe the violations that Snow found at the agency. But racial profiling isn't a legal term, so there can be multiple ways to define what exactly it means.

It's true that Snow said in a recent hearing that he has avoided using the term.

But University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who is a racial profiling expert, said Snow's findings fit the most common use of the phrase.

“I think a fair use of that term is when law enforcement uses racial or ethnic appearance as one factor among others — not just the sole factor but one among others — to decide who to stop, or frisk or question or get out of their cars,” Harris said.

Specifically, Snow found MCSO deputies violated the Fourth and 14th Amendment rights of Latino drivers in the county by targeting them and detaining them without valid legal justification.

“And whether you call it racial profiling, or you call it violations to the Fourth and 14th Amendments to the constitution doesn't matter a whole lot,” Harris said.

Harris says any attempt by MCSO leadership to try and make a distinction on this point is misleading.

“The problem with this idea that, ‘well [the judge] never said racial profiling,’ is even if the judge didn't use those words, that statement gives the impression that the judge never found they did anything wrong with using people's race or ethnic appearance,” Harris said. “And that is not true, that is simply not true.”

According to a court transcript, Snow said in a recent hearing that, “... the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office has used race — has illegitimately used race as a factor, and to the extent that constitutes racial profiling, that’s what it is, and that’s what I found...”

Harris has studied many law enforcement agencies as they adapt to court-ordered interventions because of racial profiling. And he says the problems MCSO has had mischaracterizing the judge's order means this case is off to a poor start.

So far the judge has grilled both Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan and Deputy Chief David Trombi in court for making factually incorrect statements about his findings. They include comments that Snow found officers held Latino drivers 14 seconds longer than others, and only found that a few deputies inappropriately used race.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This version is updated to reflect that Chief Deputy David Trombi's statements were made at a community meeting, not at a deputy training.
 
Updated on 4/18/14 at 4:27 p.m.