Jerry Sheridan, the Republican vying to take back the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, minimized the scope of the seminal racial profiling case and its reforms that if elected he will be in charge of upholding. Those views got him and his former boss, Joe Arpaio, held in contempt of court.
“The judge got it wrong,” Sheridan said of the judge’s contempt findings in an interview with Arizona Mirror.
Sheridan said he didn’t disagree with what a federal judge found in case, Melendres v. Arpaio: that MCSO sytematically violated the constitutional rights of Latinos during traffic stops in an attempt to arrest undocumented immigrants. But he said the scope of reforms mandated by the court are too sweeping.
“It just wasn’t as systemic as the media and the ACLU lawyers made it out to be,” Sheridan said. The American Civil Liberties Union was part of the legal team that represented the plaintiff class, which included all Latino drivers and passengers in Maricopa County.
“I’m not arguing with what the judge found,” Sheridan said. “I’m just saying that I thought that the punishment that the judge gave to the sheriff’s office was the same level of punishment that federal courts across this country have given to law enforcement agencies that have shot and killed people of color or have physically abused people of color. That was never an accusation or a claim by anyone, any person of color or Hispanic.”
The Melendres case was filed in 2007 by Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a retired public school teacher who lived in Mexico and was in Arizona on a tourist visa. MCSO deputies arrested him and took him to federal immigration agents. In the arrest, an MCSO deputy asked Ortega Melendres to empty his pockets, and when he pulled out a small bottle of moisturizing cream, the deputy asked him if he used that to masturbate.
The class-action racial profiling lawsuit led to Sheridan admitting in 2015 to acting in contempt of court, and the judge later held him in contempt of court. He was charged with criminal contempt of court, but that case was dropped.
Sheridan said he now regrets asserting that he and Arpaio violated the court’s orders.
“I did nothing but work hard to comply with the judge’s order,” he said.
Sheridan joined MCSO in 1978 when he was 18, he said. He worked patrolling for 17 years, he said, and later oversaw the jail system. When the racial profiling findings came down in early 2013, Sheridan had been agency’s the second-in-command for more than two years.
Still, he said he knew next to nothing about the immigration enforcement actions related to the Melendres case and had other duties to attend to.
“Arpaio made it very clear that he did not want me to be involved in the Melendres case or in the litigation,” Sheridan said. “I wasn’t aware of what they were doing, how they were doing things — and that was by design by Sheriff Arpaio and Chief (Brian) Sands.”
Sheridan was the second-in-command until retiring in December 2016, about a month after Arpaio lost his re-election bid to Paul Penzone, a Democrat who is seeking re-election
Sheridan said the extensive Melendres case was not reflective of the whole agency, incorrectly characterizing the court’s conclusion on racial profiling as based on the acts of a few deputies part of the Human Smuggling Unit, which was created to enforce a 2005 state law on immigration enforcement.
However, Judge Murray Snow concluded that Arpaio and Sheridan failed to discipline personnel who violated the rights of Latino drivers and passengers, and explained why the scope of reforms was necessary.
“Sheriff Arpaio and Chief Deputy Sheridan are the authors of the manipulation and misconduct that has prevented the fair, uniform, and appropriate application of discipline on MCSO employees as that misconduct pertains to the members of the Plaintiff class,” Snow wrote in a 2016 document known as the Second Supplemental Order, which ordered additional oversight of MCSO after the agency’s “evasion, manipulation, and violation of their obligation” to the court orders from 2011 and 2013.
“The facts of this case are particularly egregious and extraordinary,” Snow wrote. “The MCSO’s constitutional violations are broad in scope, involve its highest ranking command staff, and flow into its management of internal affairs investigations. Thus the necessary remedies—tailored to the violations at issue—must reach that far.”
If he becomes sheriff, Sheridan said he will work with the judge and the court-appointed monitor team, which are tasked with overseeing the implementations of the reforms.
Sheridan in 2013: Court reforms are ‘crap,’ ‘ludicrous’ and unconstitutional
To those who’ve followed the Melendres case, Sheridan’s characterization of the racial profiling case and the judge’s actions are not new.
Sheridan notoriously called the court-mandated reforms “ludicrous” and “crap” in October 2013. He said so to deputies in preparation for a sweep in a West Valley neighborhood two weeks after an order from the federal judge came down that outlined the reforms and oversight necessary at MCSO.
As Arpaio looked on, Sheridan also accused Snow of being the one who violated the Constitution.
“With the Melendres case, Judge Snow did not say that we were racist. He did not find that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office was racist,” Sheridan told his deputies in a training room, according to court documents. He went on to minimize the extent to which deputies were violating the constitutional rights of Latinos, inaccurately claiming that the court findings were based on the actions of three deputy sheriffs.
“This judge put the same constraints on us that a federal judge did with the City of New Orleans Police Department. And their police officers were murdering people. That tells you how ludicrous this crap is,” Sheridan said.
Sheridan said he regrets using the language he did, and apologized to the judge in court. But he still stands by the sentiment behind it.
“I was angry, because it wasn’t what I knew of how deputies treated the Hispanic community… It wasn’t representative of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and the deputy sheriffs that I knew my entire career,” he said.
Snow wrote that Sheridan’s 2013 statements trivialized “the significant extent to which the Court found that the MCSO’s operations violated the Constitution.”
“While it is true that the Court never found that the MCSO was racist, it did find, among other things not enumerated at length here, that MCSO deputies received incorrect training that they could consider Hispanic ethnicity as one factor among others in forming reasonable suspicion in the context of immigration enforcement,” Snow wrote in 2014. “Rather than correcting past instructions or practices, such statements continue to mis-train deputies that they had the authority to engage in their unconstitutional actions of the past, or that any mistakes made were only trivial infractions by less than a handful of deputies.”
Snow then wrote he was concerned Sheridan’s statements foster an attitude of contempt for the court’s orders among MCSO staff.
“It causes the Court concern that MCSO leadership may be choosing to present a paper appearance of compliance while at the same time fostering an attitude of contempt and subversion of the Court’s orders among MCSO personnel,” Snow wrote.
This history should concern Maricopa County voters, said Lydia Guzman, an activist who was heavily involved in the Melendres case.
“When you have somebody like Sheridan who has already exhibited those types of tendencies when he was training the deputies…that just shows you that that agency is going to make (deputies) rotten to the core,” Guzman said. “Sheridan is no different than Arpaio. He may want to separate himself as much as he can, but he is the same — or worse — because he was the mastermind of all those operations.”
Sheridan disagrees with that. Although he was second-in-command at MCSO, he said he wasn’t a mastermind or Arpaio’s right-hand.
Sheridan also said that, because of jealousy and office politics, he didn’t know the details of the immigration enforcement actions that Arpaio publicized in press releases and media interviews. Sheridan said he was outside of the reporting structure of groups that did immigration sweeps, and he was busy overseeing the MCSO jails.
Dan Pochoda, who was among the primary ACLU lawyers in the case, said that is not credible. As second-in-command, Sheridan was aware what his subordinates were up to.
“He was certainly part and parcel, directly involved, by nature of his position. Sheridan was the main active component of the racial profiling policy,” Pochoda said. “He was the carrier-outer, he was involved and knew what he was carrying out.”
Pochoda also said that Sheridan never testified or explained during the lawsuit that he was opposed to Arpaio.
Sheridan said he did privately tell Arpaio to not send out press releases about enforcement actions, but couldn’t recall ever publicly speaking up against his boss.
‘Like a dirty dog’ campaign platform
Sheridan insists he is not Arpaio, whom he defeated by about 6,000 votes in this month’s primary election.
His campaign platform came to him after a moment of prayer, he said: “I believe all people on this earth are my brothers and sisters but if someone hurts or preys on one of them, I will make sure my deputies hunt them down like a dirty dog and my detention officers will lock them up… all while conforming to the United States and Arizona Constitutions of course.”
He concedes that “hunt them down like a dirty dog” is provocative language — the same words that Latino leaders, like Guzman and now Phoenix Councilman Carlos Garcia, have used to describe how Arpaio targeted the immigrant community in his quest to “lock up illegals.”
Sheridan sticks by the wording.
“I believe that God gave me that,” he said. “That’s my platform.”