Records show top deputies in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office circulated offensive jokes about Mexicans at a time when the department faces a lawsuit alleging officers in Arizona's Maricopa County routinely racially profile immigrants during traffic stops.
One email from someone in the sheriff's office that was included in a flurry of lawyers' filings late last week had an attachment with a joke and image that reinforced stereotypes of drinking by Mexicans. Several officers also distributed an email making fun of Mexican accents, while another officer circulated a photo of a mock driver's license for a fictional state called "Mexifornia" with a photo depicting stereotypical Mexican facial features.
Lawyers for the handful of Latinos who filed the lawsuit also zeroed in on Arpaio in the court filings, saying he passed along letters from people calling for racial profiling to some of his top managers, including an official in charge of selecting the location of his immigration patrols.
"Sheriff Arpaio was communicating both his agreement with these messages and his intent to see them realized in MCSO's anti-illegal immigration enforcement activities," wrote Stanley Young, an attorney for those who filed the lawsuit.
The lawsuit centers on the traffic patrols known as "sweeps" where deputies and posse volunteers flood an area of a city _ in some cases heavily Latino areas _ to seek out traffic violators and arrest other violators. Arpaio's office has launched nearly 20 sweeps since early 2008.
Some deputies and even members of Arpaio's immigrant smuggling squad used the email system to distribute offensive images of Mexicans, Young said, pointing to a letter from a person asking for a roundup in north Phoenix.
"If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin," the letter said. "Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegals who are here illegally." Young said Arpaio sent the letter to a top manager and instructed him to "Have someone handle this."
Young said considerations of race have infected the sweeps and that Arpaio has in effect endorsed calls for racial profiling.
Most of the letters don't describe criminal activity, and Arpaio sent thank-you notes in some cases to people who wrote the letters, Young said.
Arpaio, responding to request for comment Tuesday, said he was not concerned with the case. "Let's see what the courts say," he said.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said some of the emails were circulated by officers and supervisors involved in the patrols or stops that involved their clients.
The U.S. Justice Department also has launched a civil rights investigation of Arpaio's office in early 2009 on allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures. The federal agency also is examining the sheriff's jail policies that discriminate against people with limited English skills. The sheriff's office has repeatedly denied allegations of racial profiling.
Timothy Casey, an attorney for the sheriff's office, has asked for the civil lawsuit to be dismissed, arguing that those who filed the case lack standing to show they face a threat of future injury from the sweeps and people pulled over in the sweeps were approached because deputies had probable cause to believe they had violated a law.
"The undisputed evidence in this case demonstrates that each of the plaintiffs' respective traffic stops was made on either probable cause or reasonable suspicion as required," Casey wrote, noting that there was no evidence that deputies had discriminatory intent in stopping the people who filed the lawsuit.
The lawyers for those who filed the case also asked U.S. District Judge Murray Snow to impose punishments against the sheriff's office for its acknowledged destruction of records that they had sought in the case. The sheriff's lawyers have said some sweeps-related emails were deleted as a result of an unintentional mistake by a manager.
Last year, Snow found grounds to sanction the agency for having thrown away and shredded officers' records of traffic stops made during the immigration patrols, but the judge held off on actually imposing the sanction.
Young proposed a court order saying the sheriff's office based its sweeps on anti-Hispanic sentiments and on citizen complaints that describe no criminal activity and express racial animosity. Snow has yet to rule on that request.
Some sweeps-related emails that were thought to have been deleted by the sheriff's office turned out to have been saved by the county when it was discovered that the county had backed up emails by the sheriff's office as part of a routine document-preservation step in an unrelated lawsuit.
County officials have said a federal grand jury investigating Arpaio for alleged abuses of power had subpoenaed some of the emails.