The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office struggled to appease citizens at a tense two-hour community forum in the Carl Hayden High School gym Wednesday night. It didn't help that Sheriff Paul Penzone wasn't there.
Almost 200 mostly Latino and Hispanic community members made their thoughts known during a Q&A-style forum.
After a string of racial profiling incidents and alleged contempt of a 2013 federal court order intended to stop discrimination by six-term sheriff Joe Arpaio, new-sheriff-in-town Penzone was elected last November as a reformer. He’s been trying to boost trust in their sheriff’s office — but that can’t happen overnight.
And the fact that Penzone was MIA from the meeting didn’t expedite it.
Community Advisory Board member Dr. Angeles Maldonado said Penzone’s absence from a meeting his constituents cared about so deeply was a slap in the face.
“We’re still glad that this meeting was held so we could speak to people, but I think the fact that Sheriff Penzone is not here is a really bad sign for us,” Maldonado said. “I think he really needs to show up and come to terms with everything that he’s taken on when he ran for office.”
Sheriff’s office officials said Penzone had a pre-planned family vacation, which kept him from attending the meeting. They recorded the meeting on video and took notes, which they said Penzone would review.
As Maldonado spoke, she illustrated the community’s desire for transparency and compliance from an office with a history of ambiguity and bias.
“This isn’t about us wanting to create conflict, but rather we are interested in a fight that has begun since 2007 to end racial profiling in Maricopa County,” Maldonado said. “We continue to hear that there’s fear in the community. … The thing that we care about most is the community that we’re a part of and we don’t want little children to be afraid of their parents not coming home.”
Rocio Hernandes understands the fear Maldonado was talking about.
The 45-year-old spoke in Spanish at the forum, animatedly pointing at her children with her long, pink fingernails as she told the sheriff’s office through a translator that she wanted to know she could drive or walk through Maricopa County with dignity, not fear.
“She wants to know that she’s not going to be stopped because of the way she looks,” Hernandes’ translator explained. “She came to this country to live her dream. She is going to fight for that, and she will do that the correct way and does not want to be stopped — does not want to be profiled just because of her skin.”
After a round of applause from the audience, MCSO Chief of Staff Stephanie Cherney assured Hernandes she wouldn't face profiling.
“We don’t want anybody to think that they’re going to get pulled over because of the color of their skin,” Cherney said. “That is prohibited by the court order and it is prohibited by our policy.”
She and another Maricopa County official presented a power point illustrating their current compliance with a court order intended to stop racial discrimination against Hispanics in Spanish and English at the beginning of the meeting.
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But some of the forum-goers still were skeptical of this. They raised a handful of other issues they had with the sheriff’s office, demanding more opportunities to make their voices heard and condemning the ability of ICE agents to pick up immigrants inside of jails.
And while Hernandes acknowledged how far MCSO still has to go to gain back trust from residents, she said the first step was listening — to her and other Hispanics in Maricopa County. She was glad to see them making that effort at the forum.
“Obviously, they are here because they care,” Hernandes’ translator said of MCSO. “If everybody is here sitting for over an hour and a half, it’s because everybody is interested in change. And we should all work together."