In April 1963, while confined to jail in Birmingham, Alabama for leading peaceful civil rights demonstrations in what was then considered to be the most segregated city in America, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote an open letter challenging a group of local ministers and the nation to speak out against the brutal, segregationist tactics of the infamous Birmingham police commissioner, Bull Connor. Forty-seven years later, in Maricopa County, Arizona, there’s another police official who seems bent on defying the Constitutional rights of non-white, law-abiding citizens.

For more than a decade, Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio has been the subject of numerous investigations and lawsuits for his inhumane treatment of prisoners and overzealous enforcement of immigration laws, including Arizona statues that amount to outright racial profiling.

Since March, 2009, the Justice Department has been investigating Sheriff Arpaio for violating the Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination in programs receiving federal funds. Investigators have requested documents and interviews to ascertain whether the aggressive search and seizure tactics of Arpaio’s office during its pursuit of undocumented immigrants, violated the civil rights of law-abiding Latino citizens. For more than 18 months, Arpaio has refused to cooperate with the probe. In early September, the Justice Department filed suit against Arpaio. Maricopa County stands to lose $113 million in federal funds if Arpaio doesn’t produce proof that he’s not engaging in racial profiling.

Arpaio’s obstinate refusal to cooperate with this federal investigation is virtually unprecedented. According to the Justice Department, Arpaio is the first local law enforcement official in 30 years to refuse to provide documents in a federal civil rights inquiry. Arpaio’s actions follow a longstanding pattern of abuse of power and anti-immigration behavior. In 2008, a federal judge ruled that Maricopa County jails failed to meet constitutional standards. Moreover, Arpaio has publicly admitted that for years he has been employing many of the tactics contained in Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, which the Justice Department has said illegally conflicts with federal statutes and undermines the nation’s foreign policy.

Joe Arpaio is becoming a symbol of rising anti-immigration fever throughout the nation. He’s a throwback to the days when powerful and arrogant police officials openly blocked racial progress and defied federal law. Arizona ACLU Legal Director Dan Pochoda has said, “Sheriff Arpaio does not have the right to profile people because they look Latino regardless of their immigration status. His job is to uphold the law, not violate people’s rights.”

I agree. Joe Arpaio calls himself the “toughest sheriff in America.” But his abusive law enforcement and anti-immigration tactics make him look more like a modern-day Bull Connor.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Marc Morial

Marc H. Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.

OtherWords commentaries are free to re-publish in print and online — all it takes is a simple attribution to To get a roundup of our work each Wednesday, sign up for our free weekly newsletter here.

(Note: Images credited to Getty or Shutterstock are not covered by our Creative Commons license. Please license these separately if you wish to use them.)