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Sheriff Penzone explains internal affairs backlog, asks judge not to hold contempt hearing

Penzone news conference
Posted at 2:31 PM, Mar 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-27 17:31:10-04

PHOENIX — Lawyers for Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone claim a combination of staffing shortages and a 50% increase in complaints against MCSO staff in recent years have led to a massive backlog of internal investigations.

It's taking, on average, more than 500 days to investigate complaints about his deputies. The backlog of cases in MCSO's Professional Standards Bureau, at 1,738 pending cases, is so immense that the sheriff now risks being fined or otherwise sanctioned by a federal judge.

The sheriff's office has been monitored by the federal court for years as the result of a massive racial profiling lawsuit filed in 2007 when Joe Arpaio was sheriff. The lawsuit began with complaints about racial bias in traffic stops, but it ultimately exposed significant problems with civil rights and accountability in many areas of MCSO.

In 2016, before Penzone became sheriff, the court found MCSO was administering an internal investigation system that fails to conduct fair investigations in a timely fashion. As a result, the court required a massive overhaul of the Professional Standards Bureau, including a requirement that all complaints against deputies and other employees be fully investigated.

Earlier this month, lawyers for the plaintiffs filed a motion asking for the federal judge to hold a contempt hearing alleging Penzone was not complying with the court's orders.

In a response filed Wednesday, Penzone's lawyers said the request for a contempt hearing is, "unjustified and harmful to the compliance process." They added, "It solves no problems and only diverts resources and attention away from the compliance effort."

Lawyers for Penzone argued that all the cases are being investigated fully, and an independent federal court monitor has agreed with PSB outcomes.

"PSB’s large pending caseload exists because the complaint intake has outpaced the complaint closures since 2017," according to Penzone's court filing. PSB opened 1,204 new cases in 2020. By comparison, there were 847 in 2016.

The backlog of PSB cases was also a campaign issue in 2020 as Penzone, a Democrat, faced a challenge by Republican Jerry Sheridan, who was Arpaio's chief deputy.

To accommodate the growing caseload, PSB has more than doubled in size since 2015, from 25 to 54 staff members, according to lawyers from MCSO. Due to an overall shortage of deputies, including those in patrol, "MCSO cannot transfer any additional Sergeants or Lieutenants into PSB without affecting its public safety mission or violating the Court’s Orders," according to the filing.

The sheriff's office also said it's trying to hire more contractors to assist in the internal investigations, but it has been hard to find companies with the appropriate qualifications.

"MCSO has repeatedly asked the Plaintiffs and Monitoring Team to provide their estimates or recommendations for the number of new investigators, administrative staff, and supervisory staff that would be sufficient, in their view, to meet the demands of the increasing caseload if policies remain unchanged," Penzone's court filing said, adding no number has been provided.

Neither party's court filings addressed the reasons behind the spike in the number of complaints needing internal investigation.

MCSO has done a comparison with other major police agencies in Arizona and across the country, and MCSO's complaints are much higher compared to the number of employees.