Understaffing cited in botched Arizona probes

Last Updated: Tue, Feb 12, 2013 03:00 hrs

A report examining more than 400 sex-crime cases that were inadequately investigated or not looked into at all by an Arizona sheriff's office attributes the failures to understaffing and mismanagement, including hundreds of pieces of evidence intended for storage that were instead left in offices or taken home by detectives.

The internal affairs report released Monday blamed officers on Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's sex-crimes squad for some failures and noted the squad was "overworked and understaffed." But the report said officials were rescinding earlier letters that threatened to discipline the officers in question.

"This systematic problem could not then, and cannot now, be properly addressed or corrected by disciplining a few individuals," Arpaio aide Brian Sands wrote in a new letter Monday to one of the squad members. Sands wrote that officers fell short in their duties because they were assigned an overwhelming volume of complex, time-consuming cases to investigate. The squad had too few detectives, and budget restrictions limited overtime hours.

The report also attributed the failures to detectives marking cases as cleared when investigations were still under way, and to a supervisor who didn't use the agency's case tracking system and instead relied a written log that often lacked key information and made it virtually impossible to determine the status of each case.

According to the report, a box containing 47 pieces of evidence was found underneath a sex-crimes detective's desk. If the box hadn't been found — an internal investigator looked for it for two weeks — prosecutors could have been forced to drop all charges against a suspect, the report said.

When another detective was transferred out of the sex-crimes squad, he took a box of evidence home with him, the report said. The detective stored the box in his garage for a while before moving it to a locker at his patrol district office. He claimed the original copies were in evidence storage, according to the report.

The sheriff's office issued a statement Monday saying it worked to correct the problems once they were pointed out.

"The internal investigation shows that the problems were not unique to this agency and were systemic in nature," the agency said. The statement didn't address the issue of understaffing.

In November 2011, the sheriff's office sent letters to former sex-crimes squad supervisor Kim Seagraves and four other people who served on the squad, saying the agency was considering suspending them for alleged incompetency, neglect of duty and other conduct violations. But on Monday, the sheriff's office sent the officers a new letter saying it was rescinding the previous letter that threatened to discipline them. Seagraves' attorney, Kathryn Baillie, declined to comment on the report.

The internal investigation was launched in May 2008 after the city of El Mirage, which paid Arpaio's office for police services, said it discovered at least 32 reported child molestations in which the sheriff's office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.

El Mirage, a heavily Hispanic community near Phoenix, alleged there were many cases in which sheriff's investigators wrote no follow-up reports, collected no additional forensic evidence and made no effort after the initial crime report was taken.

Arpaio's office eventually reopened more than 400 of its sex-crime cases countywide after finding they were inadequately investigated or not examined at all. The botched investigations have been an embarrassment to a department whose sheriff is the self-described "America's toughest sheriff" and a national hero to conservatives on immigration issues.

Arpaio apologized in December 2011 for the bungled cases, and his office has since said it has moved to clear up the cases and taken steps to prevent the problem from happening again.

The internal investigation launched in May 2008 was stopped after its investigator was pulled away at the direction of David Hendershott, Arpaio's then-top aide, to help with another matter. The probe was reopened in December 2010 while Hendershott was on medical leave.

The botched investigations were mentioned in a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department that alleges a range of civil rights violations in Arpaio's immigration patrols and jails.

The Justice Department accused the sheriff's office of failing to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence and focusing intensively on low-level immigration offenses over more serious crime. Arpaio's office has denied the allegations.

Arpaio's critics used the bungled investigations to hammer on the sheriff last year as he was campaigning for a sixth term. He was forced to plow millions of dollars into the race to fend off the challenge. In the end, Arpaio won by a six-point margin.

Last month, a group launched a campaign to call a recall election against the six-term sheriff.