Cops’ traffic stops drop dramatically in Phoenix

Associated Press


Traffic stops by sheriff’s deputies in metropolitan Phoenix have dropped by more than half since a federal judge found the department was racially profiling Latinos in then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration crackdowns, and ordered a massive overhaul to rid it of biased policing.

With the agency still under court supervision, deputies worry their reasons for pulling over motorists will be unfairly scrutinized or they’ll face internal affairs investigations, according to Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, and several other people interviewed.

“It all stems from this fear and mentality that the court orders were intended to do harm to the office, instead of improving the quality of the office,” Penzone told The Associated Press.

Traffic stops by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies have fallen 52 percent from 2015 to 2018, according to figures provided to the AP by the department. The dramatic decline – from 31,700 stops in 2015 to 15,200 in 2018 – raises questions about whether officers are missing evidence of illegal drugs, burglaries and other crimes that are sometimes discovered when pulling over motorists.

Penzone conceded officers may be missing criminal activity but emphasized it’s unacceptable for them to back away from their bread-and-butter duties.

The latest publicly available traffic-stop analysis for the agency by Arizona State University criminal-justice researchers found deputies have made improvements but are still more likely to search and arrest Hispanic drivers than white drivers.

Brad Ruehle, president of a group representing the sheriff’s deputies, declined to comment on the decrease in traffic stop. Others said it’s normal for enforcement numbers to decline after a major ruling involving law enforcement.

The agency has been under court supervision since a judge concluded in 2013 that sheriff’s deputies racially profiled Latinos in Arpaio’s traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. The traffic stop figures go back only to 2015 because the agency adopted a new record-keeping system, and earlier figures don’t contain enough detail to make a comparison.

The overhaul includes retraining officers on making constitutional stops, establishing an alert system to spot problematic behavior by officers, equipping deputies with body cameras and holding interventions with officers flagged for having statistical differences from their peers in how they treated Latinos.

The judge in the profiling case also ordered an extensive overhaul of the agency’s internal affairs operations, which under Arpaio’s leadership had been criticized for biased decision-making that allowed sheriff’s officials to escape accountability.

While the agency is improving its compliance with the overhaul, the traffic-stop analysis covering encounters with motorists from July 2016 through June 2017 still found Hispanic drivers are more likely to be searched and arrested by deputies than white drivers. The average length of stops for Hispanic drivers is three minutes longer than for white drivers.

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