PHOENIX – The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office held community meetings on Saturday to explain court-ordered changes underway at the agency to prevent racial profiling.
A federal judge mandated the reforms — including these community meetings — after finding the Sheriff's Office discriminated against Latino drivers in its immigration enforcement efforts.
Meetings were held at five district field offices on Saturday morning. Some took place outside, despite brisk December weather.
In his October order, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow required these meetings so the Sheriff's Office could describe to the public how its implementing the order. The order requires new equipment like cameras in deputy vehicles, new traffic stop protocols, and an independent monitor, among other changes.
The meetings also were also supposed to clarify that "[MCSO] does not enforce immigration laws except to the extent that it is enforcing Arizona and federal criminal laws," according to Snow's order.
At the meeting in the Phoenix suburb of Avondale, Lt. Phil Fortner conveyed that point while reading from a prepared statement.
"The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is prohibited from detaining, holding or arresting Latino occupants of vehicles based on reasonable suspicion or probable cause that such individuals are in the country illegally," Fortner read.
It took Fortner about 20 minutes to read the entire prepared statement to a small handful of community members who stood and listened in the district office parking lot. No chairs were set out, though one officer offered to bring them out to anyone who requested one.
The Sheriff's Office very first mandatory meeting was held in November, which followed an October crime suppression operation. The order requires community meetings after any large-scale law enforcement initiative, as well as every year in each district.
During the question and answer session, former Arizona lawmaker Alfredo Gutierrez questioned why the meeting was being held outside on a cold day. Saturday morning's temperatures were in the high 40s in Avondale.
Deputy Chief David Trombi defended the venue, but also said future meetings could be held indoors.
"We are doing absolutely everything to comply with the judge's order in good faith," Trombi said. "This location here outside is in my opinion very appealing to people in the community who knew about it through the media that publicized it, and to the people driving by to stop, to get out."
Other community members asked the MCSO representatives questions about rules around traffic stops and towing vehicles after a driver is arrested.
The low turnout prompted one attendee, Rosa Maria Soto, to ask Trombi through a Spanish interpreter if he would be willing to attend another forum if she organized it.
Soto said afterwards she had experience organizing well attended community forums.
"First of all, we would have it in a good, welcoming place, where people would be comfortable," she said in Spanish.
At a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting last week, the Sheriff's Office gave estimates that complying with Snow's order could cost more than $20 million over the next two years, including both operating costs and one-time expenses.
While the Sheriff's Office has pledged to comply, it is also appealing the order.