2009Local Reporting


Emergency response, enforcement of other crime suffers with focus on illegal immigration
Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin
July 9, 2008

Sheriff's Patrol: The Maricopa County sheriff's human smuggling unit went on a patrol in the Wickenburg area on May 14 in search of "load vehicles," which transport illegal border crossers to destinations around the country. Juan Angel Herta-Bandale is put in handcuffs after he and his passengers were all found to be in the country illegally. (Julio Jiminez, Tribune)

For more than two years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has dispatched his deputies to arrest hundreds of illegal immigrants as he’s retooled his force into an immigration enforcement agency.

But it’s Maricopa County’s residents, particularly those living in small towns and rural stretches, who have paid the price for his decision.

People wait far longer for deputies to arrive at life-threatening emergencies. Detectives make arrests in far fewer criminal investigations. Taxpayers are spending millions of dollars to enforce federal immigration laws.

Immigration enforcement appears to have affected most parts of the sheriff’s operations. In El Mirage, for instance, sheriff’s detectives did little or no investigation on at least 30 violent crime cases, including a dozen reported sexual assaults, during 2006 and 2007. The lack of significant work on those cases has prompted MCSO to open an internal affairs investigation into the problem.

At the same time, just a few miles from the town, 15 detectives were doing little else but scouring roadways for cars filled with people who’d entered the United States without permission.

Arpaio and his top officials acknowledge the office has struggled with emergency response and a swelling caseload but deny that immigration enforcement is to blame.

Further, they argue that arresting illegal immigrants is central to their operations because illegal immigration is a central concern of county residents.

“The people agree with what I’m doing, a very high percentage,” Arpaio says. “So I do know I’m doing the right thing for the people I serve. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing, serving the people.”

But a Tribune investigation found MCSO often neglected regular law enforcement work during its hurried evolution into an immigration enforcement operation. This year, even the number of criminal immigration arrests have dropped; many of the illegal immigrants who deputies captured in recent months received voluntary deportation, not criminal prosecution.

The newspaper also found:

• Deputies are failing to meet the county’s standard for response times on life-threatening emergencies. In 2006 and 2007, patrol cars arrived late two-thirds of the time on more than 6,000 of the most serious calls for service.

• MCSO’s arrest rate has plunged the past two years even as the number of criminal investigations has soared.

• The sheriff’s “saturation” patrols and “crime suppression/anti-illegal immigration” sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods are done without any evidence of criminal activity, violating federal regulations intended to prevent racial profiling.

• Rampant overtime spending on immigration operations drove the agency into financial crisis and forced it to close facilities across the county. Although MCSO officials have said state and federal grants covered all the expense, illegal immigration arrests actually are costing county taxpayers millions of dollars.

• Despite the money and manpower expended, the sheriff’s office has arrested only low-level participants in human smuggling rings: drop house guards, drivers and the immigrants they ferry.

• Deputies regularly make traffic stops based only on their suspicion that illegal immigrants are inside vehicles. They figure out probable cause after deciding whom to pull over.

Arpaio, who’s campaigning for a fifth term as county sheriff, has garnered international media attention for his tough stance on illegal immigration. He boasts that MCSO is the only law enforcement agency that has made arrests under Arizona’s anti-human smuggling law, and he often derides other police officials for choosing not to crack down on illegal immigrants.

MCSO touts the number of illegal immigrants deputies arrest on its Web site and, with every operation, issues press releases hyping the action and chiding other agencies and civic leaders who speak against him.

His frequent sweeps in Valley cities are controversial, drawing hundreds of demonstrators from both sides of the issue along with major press coverage and thousands of comments on local media Web sites.

Arpaio contends he is simply enforcing the law — the state’s human smuggling law in particular.

“It’s a Class 4 felony. You can’t even get out on bond, so it must be somewhat serious,” he said.

But that enforcement pulled manpower from other parts of the sheriff’s office, finance records show, at a time when it was already short-handed.

With 15 detectives, human smuggling is the sheriff’s largest specialized unit. The special victims unit has eight detectives.

“A lot of this is the trade-off,” said Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “If the local police are doing federal law enforcement, other law enforcement responsibilities get a lower priority by default.”

Other police departments within the county do make immigration arrests, but focus their money and their manpower on the most serious cases. The Phoenix Police Department has teamed with the state Department of Public Safety in a task force — which MCSO refused to join — that targets only cases of human smuggling violence. They’ve busted 40 drop houses since December.

A Tribune review of thousands of pages of the sheriff’s immigration arrest records from 2006 and 2007 show deputies found the illegal immigrants arrested by MCSO rarely committed other crimes.

And in recent months, MCSO has increasingly targeted day laborers, rather than immigrants and smugglers, according to deputies’ reports to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But for Maricopa County residents, illegal immigration is the most local of concerns.

Arpaio “demands that we respond to the public,” said Deputy Chief Brian Sands, head of MCSO’s law enforcement division, “and this is the highest priority that we have.”


Detective Jesus J. Cosme pressed hard on the gas pedal so that only a couple of feet separated his sport utility vehicle from the van he was tailing.

The navy blue Chrysler wasn’t speeding. Or weaving. Its tail lights worked and the Oregon license plate was clearly displayed. Driving through Wickenburg on U.S. 93 one evening in early January, Cosme said he was certain illegal immigrants filled the van.

But the human smuggling detective could not yet prove it. So Cosme pressured the driver.

He raced up behind the van in his unmarked silver Jeep Commander, waiting for a mistake, for any probable cause to make a stop.

The human smuggling unit does most of its work less than two miles from the Yavapai County line, on rural highways that run to Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The detectives are focused solely on illegal immigrants, Cosme said.

“Obviously, if there’s a shooting right in front of us we’ll handle it,” he added.

Extreme circumstances aside, Cosme and his 14 human smuggling colleagues work as federal immigration agents.

During its infancy, the unit used roving patrols exclusively to bust “load cars,” the vehicles that transport illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Border Patrol developed the tactic, which involves patrolling likely smuggling routes in large numbers and making traffic stops on suspicious vehicles.

Roving patrols have drawn accusations of racial profiling for the Border Patrol.

And now the sheriff’s office is facing the same criticism.

MCSO’s detectives patrol Old U.S. 80 near Gila Bend and U.S. 60 through Wickenburg looking for large passenger vehicles, primarily vans and SUVs. Does the rear bumper drag from the weight of people packed inside? Are the windows covered up? Once a human smuggling detective has decided to stop a vehicle, arrest reports show, he looks for legal justification. In 2006 and 2007, deputies cited license plate problems as probable cause for nearly a third of 71 traffic stops, a database of criminal immigration arrests compiled by the Tribune shows.

But this year, deputies are frequently using moving violations — crossing the yellow line, failure to yield, for instance — as probable cause, according to the sheriff’s reports to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal immigration agency.

Cosme would ultimately use an alleged moving violation as his probable cause on that January evening. But first he needed to make sure the blue van was indeed what he was after.

Abruptly, the detective swerved into the left lane and, coming frighteningly close to the vehicle, used his front beams like search lights on the van’s windows, illuminating a crowd of human shadows.

The detective switched on his dashboard’s emergency lights. The sheriff’s office had caught another load vehicle.

“Failure to signal,” the detective said to a Tribune reporter seated beside him. “You saw that.”

But the van had not switched lanes.

Cosme had repeatedly called his fellow human smuggling detectives while tailgating the van to update them on the potential bust. The rest of the squad arrived moments after the van pulled into a gas station.

Eight illegal immigrants sat inside, three of them boys in their early teens. The driver, Carlos J. Paniagua-Gonzalez, told detectives he and his friends were headed to Las Vegas to party. Asked to name all his passengers, Paniagua-Gonzalez said he could not.

“I have too many friends,” he added, smiling.

Later that evening, back at the sheriff’s station in Surprise, deputies spent hours running each suspect’s fingerprints through a federal database.

One of the passengers had been caught entering the country illegally more than a dozen times during the past 20 years. His mug shots show how the Mexican national looked as he grew up, from a young man to middle age.

The deputies turned over five of the suspects — the three juveniles and two of their relatives — to federal immigration authorities for deportation. The driver was arrested for suspicion of human smuggling for profit, two of the passengers for conspiring to smuggle themselves.

Sgt. Ryan Baranyos called his superior to report the details on their night’s work.

“What was your (probable cause) on that?” Baranyos shouted to Cosme.

The detective paused, looked at the ceiling and strained to recall what prompted the traffic stop.

“Hold on,” Baranyos said into the phone, then quipped, “he’s thinking of something to make up.”


Arpaio formed the Human Smuggling Unit in the weeks following his agency’s first foray into immigration enforcement.

Just after dawn on March 2, 2006, Deputy George Burke patrolled along the westernmost edge of Maricopa County, where few roads disrupt miles of empty desert. Burke watched two vans turn off the pavement and blaze a trail into brush. The deputy gave chase and the vans promptly stopped.

Burke walked to one of the vans, “opened the front passenger door and saw that the rear of the van was full of bodies,” the deputy’s arrest report says.

More than 50 illegal immigrants were packed inside the vehicles.

Burke called for backup, the report says, and for any officer who could speak Spanish.

Arizona’s anti-human smuggling law had gone into effect six months earlier.

Then, County Attorney Andrew Thomas told prosecutors they could use the law to charge not only smugglers but also the illegal immigrants for conspiring to smuggle themselves into the country.

Thomas’ interpretation of the law remains highly controversial, and even one of the law’s sponsors has criticized its use.

And, as Arpaio likes to point out, MCSO is the only law enforcement agency to make arrests under the human smuggling law.

In 2006 and 2007, the first two years the human smuggling unit was in business, deputies arrested more than 650 people under the law. Often, MCSO brought in the SWAT team, the helicopter unit, police dogs and patrol deputies to assist in the arrests, a deployment of force that contributed in large part to massive overtime spending and the agency’s much publicized budget troubles late last year.

MCSO also stepped up immigration enforcement efforts even more last year, signing an agreement with ICE that granted 100 of its detectives and patrol deputies broad authority to arrest illegal immigrants. Under that pact, the sworn officers became federal agents, though the sheriff’s office — not ICE — oversees their work. MCSO has more local officers trained in immigration enforcement than any other police agency in the country.

Other police departments primarily use their federal powers in the course of regular duties, or to assist ICE investigations.

“That’s what most of them do because they have other law enforcement priorities,” said Kris Kobach, former special counsel to the U.S. Attorney General. He helped establish the first of ICE’s partnerships with state and local police in 2003. At MCSO, the opposite is true.

The sheriff’s office has rewritten deputies’ regular duties to include general immigration work, arrest reports show.

And the human smuggling detectives rarely do anything else.

Arrests on smuggler routes

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The sheriff’s office has long struggled with slow emergency response times.

Deputies patrol a jurisdiction larger than the state of New Jersey, with thousands of residents, even in the same patrol district, miles apart. Staffing is perpetually an issue — experienced deputies frequently leave MCSO for higher-paying departments elsewhere.

The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors has set a five-minute response time as the expectation for “priority one” calls — life-threatening emergencies. There is no penalty if the standard isn’t met.

In 2004 and 2005, MCSO reported to the county Office of Management and Budget that the patrol division had significantly shortened its emergency response times, thanks mainly to a pay increase that was finally keeping deputies in place.

Patrol cars arrived within five minutes on 45 percent of the priority one calls, the data show. That meant deputies responded quickly on about 1,850 calls when people were in danger, and that number had improved by some 800 calls over the year before.

But the improvements were short-lived.

Even though the patrol division was barely maintaining adequate staffing, Arpaio decided to pull deputies from patrol beats, often without replacing them, to staff the human smuggling unit.

Response times climbed.

In 2006, the data show that deputies arrived within five minutes on 1,780 emergencies; last year, it was only 1,550. Each year, deputies arrived late to more than 3,000 calls.

Lisa Allen, director of media relations and one of Arpaio’s top advisors, said response times are up because calls for service have increased dramatically. More people calling MCSO means a limited number of deputies are spread even thinner in the county’s vast geographical area, she said.

But MCSO’s own numbers don’t support Allen’s contention. MCSO actually received about 700 fewer calls in 2007 than it did the year before.

Still, the patrol division’s manpower shortage was exacerbated by the human smuggling transfers. Personnel records for each division and interviews with top officials show how the transfers affected MCSO operations.

Deputy Chief Frank Munnell took over MCSO’s patrol bureau a year ago and found that District 4 — which covers Cave Creek and Carefree — had 13 empty deputy positions, nearly 40 percent of its force.

“They were way understaffed,” Munnell said.

Two of those deputies had transferred to the human smuggling unit without immediate replacements, finance records show.

Munnell said he has since added eight deputies to the Cave Creek station and believes he has reduced response times this year, although numbers aren’t yet available.

Nearly every patrol district lost deputies to the new human smuggling unit, as did the trails and lake divisions, and the central investigations bureau.

The sheriff’s District 1 patrol stations — which include Guadalupe, Queen Creek and Mesa — provided the human smuggling unit a deputy despite already being short nearly 20 sworn officers.

Five deputies joined the unit from the District 3 patrol station in Surprise alone — costing it 10 percent of its force.

In District 2, which covers nearly all of the county’s western half, average emergency response times spiked during 2006 and early 2007, according to the data. The district was then home base for human smuggling detectives who operated mainly on rural highways to the west, MCSO arrest reports show.

And though, as Cosme noted, human smuggling detectives don’t ignore life-threatening situations happening in front of them, their mandate is to do immigration enforcement. They rarely participate in regular police work or respond to emergency calls, adding to the burden — and thus the response times — of other MCSO deputies.

Before the human smuggling unit began operating, response times in District 2 averaged roughly 11 minutes per emergency call — slow, but not unusual for such a large and sparsely populated area.

But during the first three months of 2007, the data show the average arrival time jumped 38 percent, to more than 16 minutes.

By any measure, 16 minutes “seems like a long time” for the most serious emergencies, said Wesley G. Skogan, a Northwestern University political science professor and police work researcher.

Law enforcement research has found officers must typically arrive within three minutes on an emergency call to catch criminals in the act, Skogan said. “In other words, it has to be really, really fast in order to have an arrest.”

Beyond making arrests, he added, quick responses also serve crime victims.

“If the victim is injured, if they’re terrified and emotionally distraught ... those kind of rapid responses make a difference as well,” Skogan said.

That’s a concept residents of Aguila can identify with. People in the unincorporated county area say they stopped bothering with calling 911 last year. Deputies didn’t come quickly, if at all.

“We were calling the sheriff’s department and they might show up that day,” said Starr Shipman, a waitress at Coyote Flats Cafe and Bar. “They might show up three days later.”

The little farming community 20 miles west of Wickenburg must rely on MCSO for police protection. Or they must rely on themselves.

At the Valley Food Market, a woman was stabbed during a December robbery. A shiny, new fence of steel bars now surrounds the market, with razor wire looping along the top.

As burglaries and armed robberies became nightly occurrences, Aguila’s business owners secured concealed weapons permits. Residents also organized a public meeting, alerted the media and complained loudly about feeling abandoned by the sheriff’s office.

Arpaio announced his human smuggling unit would target illegal immigrants in Aguila, whom he blamed for the crime spree.

But, several residents told the Tribune, the robbers are white and live nearby.

Shipman said deputies now come around every day.

But the crime hasn’t stopped.

Burglars broke into Coyote Flats last month. This time, deputies came the next morning and took fingerprints, but no one has been arrested for that or any of the town’s other recent crimes.

“They’re not, like, criminal geniuses around here,” Shipman said.

Munnell said response times should be getting better soon. More than 20 deputies are in training, which should fill many of patrol’s holes in the coming months.

Just passing through

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Besides response times, MCSO figures show arrest rates on criminal investigations are down dramatically.

In 2005, the sheriff’s office cleared 10.5 percent of its investigations with arrests. The next year, when immigration operations began, that number dropped to 6 percent.

By July 2007, detectives only made arrests on 2.5 percent of their investigations, according to sheriff’s reports to the county budget office.

MCSO officials say those numbers are misleading. They provided the Tribune spreadsheets that show deputies now make more arrests then ever but the document also showed the arrest rate has dropped.

Even though the number of arrests is up, the arrest rate overall is still dropping because the total number of cases is growing much faster. Investigators are still losing ground, the arrest rate shows.

Much like the patrol districts, finance records show the central investigations bureau is also understaffed. Regardless, the sheriff’s office transferred two of the bureau’s detectives to the human smuggling unit last year.

But how MCSO treated El Mirage, a West Valley bedroom community that has tripled its population since 2000, has left the town’s new police administration scrambling to investigate cases sheriff’s detectives didn’t finish.

Throughout 2006 and 2007, El Mirage paid MCSO to provide half of the town’s police officers and detectives to handle investigations.

But in October, the town created its own police department and ended its contract with the sheriff’s office. MCSO turned over case files to the new department.

The first batch of cases to arrive, nearly 70 sex crime cases, appeared to have had little or no investigative work done, El Mirage Police Chief Michael Frazier said. And some were months, even years, old.

The Tribune reviewed investigation files from roughly 350 violent crime cases that MCSO ultimately turned over to El Mirage. The newspaper was able to confirm that the sheriff’s office did not investigate at least 12 sex crimes and did little work on at least 20 other armed robberies and aggravated assaults during its time serving the town. El Mirage investigators have found dozens more that were left unworked, based on their own discussions with MCSO.

“The reality was, the cases that were given back to us required significant work to where we’re just now getting a handle on them,” said Frazier.

Deputy Chief Bill Knight, head of the sheriff’s central investigations, said he offered to take those investigations back. “We put that on the table when we realized there might have been an issue,” Knight said.

But Frazier declined the offer.

Now, MCSO is conducting an internal affairs investigation of its central investigations bureau, specifically the special victims unit, regarding the El Mirage violent crimes, Knight said.

“It’s an internal affairs investigation on what happened with these cases,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell. What happened with these cases?”


Felix Velasco-Pimentel had squeezed into an old Toyota 4Runner with 11 other people.The SUV was driving north on state Route 85, halfway between Gila Bend and Phoenix, at dawn on April 3, 2007, when sheriff’s deputies stopped it for speeding 10 miles above the limit.

Like most of his fellow passengers, Velasco-Pimentel, then 26, would tell the human smuggling detectives that he was on his way to Oxnard, Calif., to work in the strawberry fields. His federal identification said Velasco-Pimentel lived in Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s southernmost states.

Oxnard is a farming town and huge strawberry producer; its convention and visitors bureau uses a strawberry in its logo. A year earlier, MCSO had busted another carload of illegal immigrants headed to Oxnard, the immigration arrest database shows.

Velasco-Pimentel admitted to having paid smugglers to drive him to his destination, according to the arrest report. Detectives arrested him and six other passengers for conspiring to smuggle themselves into the United States illegally.

In 2006 and 2007, the first two years MCSO did immigration enforcement, deputies arrested 578 illegal immigrants using traffic stops, most of them men in their 20s and 30s from central Mexico.

Of those, 498 faced only a single charge for paying a smuggler, the database shows.

Deputies found just one firearm during the stops.

Only seven of the suspects were also arrested on drug charges, and five of those were for possessing relatively small amounts of marijuana, the database shows.

In press releases, Arpaio has repeatedly alluded to the ties between the illegal immigrants his deputies arrest and drug smuggling, violence and terrorism.

However, the criminal arrest database shows that, during those two years, deputies’ immigration investigations rarely found violence or drugs and never found a suspect involved in terrorism.

MCSO has been unable to build cases against those who run the smuggling rings the detectives track, the arrest records show.

Brian Sands, MCSO’s chief of law enforcement, acknowledged that human smuggling detectives have not yet targeted ring leaders. “This is the challenge in all kinds of racketeering cases that we work,” he said. “And yeah, I concur, but we are working on it.”

The sheriff’s office has instead focused on arresting the illegal immigrants that smugglers ferry.

Increasingly, arrest reports show the human smuggling unit’s operations specifically target day laborers. Regular patrol deputies, police dogs and even the SWAT team are also dispatched to watch for vehicles that pick up illegal immigrants.

“We’re still the only law-enforcement agency in Arizona enforcing the human smuggling law, all aspects,” Arpaio says.