January 4, 2012 / 10:40 PM / 6 years ago

Arizona sheriff says will cooperate with federal officials

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A controversial Arizona sheriff said on Wednesday he would cooperate with federal officials who have said his office engages in widespread discrimination against Latinos.

The Justice Department said last month that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies violated U.S. civil rights laws by engaging in racial profiling of Latinos and making unlawful arrests in their bid to crack down on illegal immigrants.

It found Arpaio's deputies regularly made unlawful stops and arrests of Latinos and added there was also evidence they used excessive force and failed to protect the Hispanic community adequately.

Arpaio, in a statement, promised "full cooperation" with the investigation. He had a deadline of January 4 to respond to the government's call for cooperation, and officials said they would seek a court order requiring compliance if he refused.

But in a sternly worded letter, lawyers for Arpaio called on the federal government on Wednesday to stop playing politics and provide additional information to back their allegations that his office was guilty of civil rights violations.

"What we want for the Department of Justice to do is play ball," Arpaio said in a separate statement. "In other words, provide whatever proof they may have ... If they cannot prove their findings, which I suspect to be the case, then stop the political posturing."

The Justice Department's findings stem from a probe that began in 2008 during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Arpaio still faces a criminal investigation.

In a statement, the Justice Department said it looked forward to sitting down with the sheriff's office in the near future "to discuss a path forward," but cautioned that it would pursue litigation if the sheriff's office wanted to "debate the facts instead of fixing the problems stated in our findings."

"The MCSO's (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office) repeated delays in this investigation resulted in further violations of the Constitution," it said.

"We look forward to sitting down soon with MCSO, but we will not hesitate to take prompt legal action if we determine that MCSO is again failing to act in good faith," it added.

Arpaio, a conservative Republican known for his tough talking manner, has come under increased fire in recent months for his alleged anti-immigrant tactics and failure to properly investigate hundreds of sex-crimes cases.

Last month, a federal judge barred Arpaio from detaining people simply because they were in the country illegally and sanctioned the sheriff for destroying related documents.

Editing by Tim Gaynor and Cynthia Johnston

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