AP Exclusive: 1,800-case internal affairs lag in Phoenix

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is shown at an Aug. 12, 2020, news conference at his office in Phoenix. A court-appointed official has criticized Penzone's efforts to reduce a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs case against his officers and complained the sheriff hasn't heeded his team's suggestions for chipping away at the backlog.  (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud)
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is shown at an Aug. 12, 2020, news conference at his office in Phoenix. A court-appointed official has criticized Penzone's efforts to reduce a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs case against his officers and complained the sheriff hasn't heeded his team's suggestions for chipping away at the backlog. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

PHOENIX – The sheriff's department in metro Phoenix, which for years has been the target of criticism, is again under fire after a review found a backlog of 1,800 internal affairs cases taking an average of over 400 days to complete, according to a letter obtained by The Associated Press.

The findings by a court-appointed official overseeing Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone’s office said the slowness in completing the investigations is unacceptable for both members of the public who make complaints and officers awaiting the findings.

“In various discussions that have transpired, there is always a sense of lingering optimism, but little follow-up and even less progress on the issues I have cited here,” the monitor, Robert Warshaw, wrote in the July 10 letter.

Warshaw, who oversees a court-ordered internal affairs overhaul at the agency, criticized Penzone for failing to fill new internal investigator positions that were already budgeted by the county and not following the suggestion to pay retired investigators to help reduce the backlog.

The court requires internal investigations to be completed within 60 or 85 days, depending upon which office at the agency handles the cases.

Penzone said his office made warnings nearly two years ago about the growing caseload, but its own suggestions for confronting the problem were rejected by court officials and lawyers involved in a related court case. Penzone, who is seeking reelection in November, said the court’s orders have created a slow process for change.

“Unfortunately, we currently work with an adversarial process that slows any progress we are able to make,” said Penzone.

Since taking office nearly four years ago, Penzone has sought to overhaul internal affairs operations, which had been criticized for biased decision-making and shielding sheriff’s officials from accountability under his predecessor, Joe Arpaio. During his administration, the agency was found by a judge to have racially profiled Latinos in traffic stops that targeted immigrants.