2009Local Reporting

REASONABLE DOUBT: Official secrets

MCSO stymes requests for information -- even from regulators
By: 
Ryan Gabrielson
July 13, 2008

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office tries to stifle almost anyone checking on its operations.

It keeps secret the most basic data about its police work that other departments publish every year. It refuses to release public records — or tries to remove information from those records — without any legal right to do so.

And even agencies that oversee Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office cannot pry free documents that MCSO wants to keep from the public.

In 2006, the Maricopa County internal audit department tried to do a routine check of statistics the sheriff’s office had provided on clearance rates — the number of cases MCSO finishes or “clears” each year.

The sheriff’s office had reported that it cleared 57 percent of its criminal investigations during the 2005-2006 fiscal year, finance records show, up three percentage points from the previous year.

When a county auditor asked MCSO for records showing how it calculated that figure, sheriff’s officials refused to turn them over.

“We were not allowed access to supporting documentation,” the auditor’s report says.

As a result, it is impossible to know how sheriff’s detectives are handling the roughly 10,000 criminal investigations they open each year. From the few crime statistics MCSO occasionally releases, the number of violent crimes in the small towns and unincorporated areas appears to be rising sharply — particularly homicide.

The county’s internal audit department works for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. The supervisors set policy for most county departments, except those headed by elected officials, like the sheriff’s office.

But the supervisors decide how much taxpayer funding MCSO receives each year and are supposed to monitor how the office operates. The supervisors received the audit report, but none worked to pry loose the criminal investigations files.

Loretta Barkell, MCSO business services chief, worked with the county auditor on the investigations review and said that it was Chief Deputy David Hendershott who chose not to cooperate.

Hendershott is the agency’s second-highest-ranking official, below only Arpaio. Hendershott did not return repeated calls for comment and did not attend the Tribune’s interviews with MCSO officials, despite the newspaper’s specific requests to speak with him.

Asked why the agency would withhold information from the auditor, Barkell said the sheriff’s office could not just release files from investigations.

However, MCSO provided the Tribune access to dozens of investigation files in response to public records requests. Those records were provided in full form, without any information, including personal identifiers such as Social Security numbers, being redacted.

Clearance rates, which reflect the number of criminal investigations law enforcement agencies finish, are among the most basic of police statistics, and virtually every department in the United States tracks them. Detectives generally clear cases by making arrests, finding a case has no merit or closing it because they lack leads or victims who are willing to prosecute.

But sheriff’s officials admit they don’t know exactly how many criminal investigations detectives open or close.

Or the precise number of cases that end with an arrest. Or whether there are cases that detectives fail to investigate.

MCSO has not connected all of its law enforcement divisions to its computer records-keeping system, agency officials say.

As a result, a number of cases never get counted; of course, it’s unknown how many.

COSTLY TO HIDE INFORMATION

The sheriff’s office frequently refuses to comply with public records requests and the taxpayers have sometimes paid the price for that.

Last year, the West Valley View successfully sued the sheriff’s office for withholding press releases, costing county taxpayers $38,000 to pay the newspaper’s legal fees. The sheriff’s office lost another lawsuit in February after it took six months to provide records to the Tucson Citizen.

While newspapers and plaintiff’s lawyers file lawsuits to pry information from MCSO, the county auditor dropped the issue.

In refusing to provide the auditor with the criminal investigations documentation, sheriff’s officials told the auditor that their computer system for tracking criminal cases wasn’t reliable, so they would not release information from it, said Richard Chard, the county’s deputy audit director.

“I don’t know how hard we pressed on that,” Chard said of the rebuff.

The Tribune filed a records request for e-mails between the auditor and MCSO officials, but the county says it erased those records after the auditor retired in December 2007.

Ultimately, Chard said, there was little recourse for the county audit department if the sheriff’s office refused to cooperate. The auditor would have had to read through thousands of pages of investigative files to sort out MCSO’s flawed system.

“We could basically go through all kinds of gymnastics, if you will, to try to get at this information. But the bottom line was, either way we weren’t going to certify their numbers,” Chard said.

STATISTICS ARE IMPORTANT

Crime statistics are notoriously misleading. Numbers fluctuate up and down depending on how each police department defines or targets particular crimes.

If drug arrests are on the rise, is there more drug use on the city’s streets? Or are police pursuing dealers more aggressively?

But MCSO doesn’t always provide statistics to question.

Every year, the FBI compiles and releases crime data it collects from police departments across the country, including MCSO.

But in 2005, MCSO did not provide any information about the number of murders, rapes, robberies, assaults or any other crime the agency handled.

Sheriff’s officials said problems with their records-keeping system prevented them from releasing crime figures that year.

Police departments volunteer their crime data and there is no penalty if an agency doesn’t do so.

In 2004, MCSO reported 12 homicides. Two years later, when the sheriff’s office next provided its data, there were 25. The number of aggravated assaults showed a similar climb; rapes and robberies increased as well, though not as steeply.

These numbers are almost certainly too low because MCSO does not enter every incident into its computer system. The sheriff’s office reports figures to the county’s Management and Budget Office on how well it performs — including its percentage of investigations cleared — each year with a major qualification.

“Due to a lack of administrative staff, many areas of the office do not have complete … data. Therefore, the data for the Criminal Investigations Bureau is not considered accurate,” the reports say year after year.

THWARTING CRITICS

Yet another shortcoming — the sheriff’s office also does not document all of its traffic stops, which is routine for many agencies.

Critics of MCSO’s anti-illegal immigration operations have increasingly accused deputies of making traffic stops based on racial profiling. To prove that such profiling is widespread requires statistical analysis of all deputies’ traffic stops, and the race of each car’s occupants.

The Hispanic Bar Association is investigating the sheriff’s office in preparation for a lawsuit accusing deputies of violating motorists’ civil rights by racially profiling.

“We don’t have the statistics to show it one way or the other. But they’re at the same disadvantage,” Lisa Allen, the sheriff’s media relations director, said of the critics. “They can’t prove it because they don’t have the baseline to go from.”

Lawyers aren’t the only ones MCSO doesn’t want to know how it conducts its operations.

In response to a public records request, the sheriff’s office provided the Tribune with the reports it sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement about its illegal immigration arrests. Those reports show that deputies chose which vehicles to stop based on who was inside, which would support critics’ allegations of racial profiling.

Officials had tried to black out suspects’ names and sentences that detail how deputies conducted their operations, without any legal justification for removing the information.

But the sheriff’s office didn’t do a very good job of covering it up. Nearly every marked passage can still be read easily.


Tribune writer Paul Giblin contributed to this report.