PHOENIX (AP) — Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's top aide said Tuesday that the sheriff accepts responsibility for hundreds of sex-crimes investigations that were inadequately investigated and Arpaio started working to clear up the backlog once the problem was reported.
After a city that contracted with the sheriff's office for police services complained about dozens of uninvestigated cases, Arpaio's office reopened 432 sex-crimes cases that were inadequately investigated or not investigated at all over a three-year period that ended in 2007.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Jerry Sheridan told county officials at an oversight hearing Tuesday that the police agency is taking other steps to prevent the problem from happening again.
"It's really hurting us as a law enforcement agency," Sheridan said of the sex-crimes cases.
Two hundred people attended the oversight meeting. Dozens of Arpaio critics stormed out of the auditorium when they weren't allowed to speak immediately after county officials heard each of five sheriff's issues that were being examined.
The officials, instead, let the critics comment once all five oversight matters were heard. Some Arpaio critics, like some supporters of the sheriff, stuck around to comment near the end of the meeting.
Sheridan said that by the time the problem with the investigations was reported to the sheriff's office, there were only 15 cases that weren't investigated at all, and the rest had been significantly investigated but still needed some follow-up work, such as additional reports.
"This is not about 432 uninvestigated sex-crime cases," Sheridan told county officials. "This is about 15. I'd like people to start using the correct number."
The figure Sheridan provided, however, didn't include dozens of cases from El Mirage, where Arpaio's office had provided contract police services from 2005 through mid-October 2007.
In El Mirage alone, officials discovered at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as 2 years old — where the sheriff's office failed to follow through after the crimes were reported, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.
A small number of cases from El Mirage were handed over to prosecutors, but the El Mirage Police Department said most were no longer viable — evidence dating as far back as 2006 had grown cold or wasn't collected in the first place, and victims had either moved away or otherwise moved on.
The exclusion of the El Mirage figures wasn't mentioned to county officials who were conducting the oversight hearing.
The botched sex-crimes investigations have served as an embarrassment to a department led by the self-described "America's Toughest Sheriff" and a national hero to conservatives on immigration issues.
The botched investigations have dogged Arpaio since early December and have prompted calls from his critics to resign. Arpaio has said he won't quit and is seeking a sixth term next year.
Among the 432 cases, 19 people have been arrested. Sheriff's officials say 116 cases were deemed to have no basis in fact to move forward or had accounts that didn't add up, and 224 cases were turned down by prosecutors or didn't have enough evidence to bring to prosecutors.
Sixty-nine cases had no further information to pursue or couldn't be advanced further, and four cases remain under investigation.
Sheridan said Arpaio should be judged on how he responded to the problem once it was pointed out to him. "We have quickly responded and addressed these issues several years ago," Sheridan said.
Arpaio's office launched at an internal affairs investigation in May 2008, but that examination was stopped after the investigator was pulled away to help with another matter. The decision to stop the investigation was made by Sheridan's predecessor, David Hendershott. Hendershott resigned in late April amid allegations of managerial misconduct.
The internal probe was reopened in December 2010, but the sheriff's office has declined to release the report, citing potential disciplinary actions.