Clint Bolick

MCSO's flaws result in misguided mission

Posted on December 06, 2008 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Clint Bolick
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Over the past week, many have asked why the Goldwater Institute - a policy group that strongly supports effective law-enforcement - would issue a critical report entitled "Mission Unaccomplished: The Misplaced Priorities of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office." The answer: because no government agency, particularly one entrusted with protecting the public, should be immune from public scrutiny.

Like many people in Maricopa County, we grew alarmed earlier this year over the Wild West spectacle of sheriff's deputies and posse members facing off against Phoenix and Mesa police officers in highly charged immigration sweeps, culminating recently in a middle-of-the-night raid of Mesa City Hall.

We were surprised to learn that under current state law, the sheriff's office is free to conduct operations in cities that have their own police departments without notice or coordination. That is a recipe for law-enforcement anarchy, placing police officers and members of the public in extreme danger and duplicating scarce law-enforcement resources.

We also were surprised to learn that Arizona law does not assign to any law-enforcement agency the primary responsibility to serve criminal warrants. As a result, there are more than 40,000 unserved felony warrants in Maricopa County. The man who shot and killed Phoenix Police Officer Nick Erfle had an outstanding warrant, as did more than one-third of the suspects in officer-involved shootings in Mesa. The sheriff's office is the repository for all Maricopa County warrants, but apparently not a single staffer is assigned full-time to serve them.

Those issues prompted us to dig deeper. Our findings were based largely on MCSO's own statistics and investigative research conducted by this newspaper and other journalists. We conclude that MCSO in the past several years has failed in its three main missions as the sheriff's office itself defines them: law-enforcement services, support services and detention.

Public reaction to the report seems divided between people who think the immigration sweeps are a good idea and those who don't. The question is not whether to enforce immigration laws, but how to most effectively do so. The sweeps are extremely costly in terms of manpower, yet yield few arrests of illegal immigrants and do not reduce crime in the areas in which they are conducted. Other police departments focus primarily on policing violent crimes and determine illegal status during booking. So far, the sweeps have led to only about 200 arrests of illegal immigrants, compared to 16,000 through the booking process.

But judging MCSO on the basis of sweeps is like judging a cake based on its icing. Hundreds of thousands of Maricopa County residents depend on MCSO for their primary police protection. Other police departments depend on MCSO for support services and criminal detention. MCSO has diverted so many resources to the sweeps that core law-enforcement functions seem to have suffered.

MCSO's statistics reveal that between 2004-07, violent crimes increased by 69 percent - and homicides increased by more than 160 percent - in the parts of the county that the sheriff's office polices. Response times to emergency calls average 11 minutes - more than twice MCSO's goal of five minutes.

Meanwhile, MCSO closed satellite booking facilities in Mesa, Surprise and Avondale. Now all suspects throughout the county must be booked at the jail in downtown Phoenix, which often takes police officers off their patrols for three or four hours. As a result, officers frequently cite and release suspects, some of whom fail to show up for court hearings, which leads to the issuance of additional warrants that contribute to the vast backlog.

Lawsuits challenging jail conditions have reaped $30 million in judgments, while insurance premiums and deductibles have soared. By failing to meet federal standards, MCSO squanders millions of taxpayer dollars that could - and should - be spent on law enforcement.

Despite this dismal picture of MCSO's record, the reality may be even worse. MCSO's crime statistics are in such disarray that every year it releases them with the caveat that they are incomplete. Most disturbing is the substantial number of serious criminal cases that are closed with little or no investigation. Members of the public and media seeking public information have sometimes had to resort to court actions, resulting in yet more legal judgments against MCSO.

MCSO's annual budget, excluding jails, has nearly doubled since 2001 from $37.6 million to $72.5 million - about four times the county's population growth during that period. The total MCSO budget is nearly $270 million. Taxpayers deserve accountability and transparency from the sheriff's office, just as they do from every government agency.

Our policy recommendations are designed to make law enforcement more effective and efficient. We urge the Legislature to create lines of primary responsibility among law-enforcement agencies. MCSO could still conduct operations in cities that have police departments, but with notice and coordination that will reduce duplication of resources and danger to police officers and the public. We urge that the sheriff's office be given the duty of serving felony warrants. We urge greater transparency and uniform reporting of criminal statistics among all law-enforcement agencies.

The Goldwater Institute, like the fiercely independent senator after which it is named, calls 'em as we see 'em. Anyone committed to law enforcement should be concerned when crime rates are soaring in a particular jurisdiction, as they have under MCSO's watch.

At the same time, we should be suspect of any elected official who chafes at public scrutiny. When the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department recently was criticized over costly legal judgments, the department responded that it "welcomed all scrutiny" because it "could always do better." That is the kind of response to good-faith criticism we should expect from any public servant.

Maricopa County indeed may have America's toughest sheriff, but what we really need is America's most effective sheriff. It should be possible to have both.

Clint Bolick is director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.

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