Maricopa County Sheriff Department Spokeswoman Lisa Allen (L) introduces Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio during a news conference at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Training Center Auditorium in Phoenix, Arizona July 17, 2012. (Photo : Reuters)
Veteran Arizona lawman Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," denied on Tuesday that his deputies targeted people because of the color of their skin in a controversial crackdown on illegal immigration.
Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, was testifying in a class-action lawsuit to test whether police can target illegal immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
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"I am against anyone racial profiling ... today as in my 50 years in law enforcement," Arpaio, a veteran lawman who recently turned 80, told the court during cross-examination.
Arpaio was also asked about a news release he issued after a sweep targeting illegal immigrants in 2008, in which he noted criticism from former Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon that his agency went after "brown-skinned people with cracked windshields."
"We do not arrest people because of the color of their skin," he said.
The plaintiffs' counsel, Stanley Young, asked Arpaio if he believed illegal immigrants entering Maricopa County had certain appearances, and, whether this included brown skin color. Arpaio replied: "No."
The sheriff, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the border state with Mexico, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
The suit was brought against Arpaio and his office on behalf of five Hispanic plaintiffs who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino. The defense denies this.
The trial focuses attention again on Arizona, which claimed headlines last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on illegal immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
The Obama administration had challenged the crackdown in court, saying the U.S. Constitution gave the federal government sole authority over immigration policy.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit lodged by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights by him and county officials.
Protesters from both sides of the debate gathered outside the court from early morning toting flags and placards. One read "No Justice, No Peace, No Racist Police." Another read: "We Support Sheriff Joe" and "Don't believe the liberal media."
The plaintiffs in the suit include the Somos America immigrants' rights coalition and all Latino drivers stopped by the office since 2007.