Civil Rights Advocates Call on Department of Justice to Avoid Another Ferguson and Investigate Pinal County, AZ

PINAL COUNTY, AZ – Two former police detectives in Florence, Arizona and their counsel urged the Department of Justice to prevent another Ferguson, Missouri by investigating two police departments in Pinal County, Arizona – the Pinal County Sheriff's Office (PCSO) and the Florence Police Department (FPD).

"The situation in Arizona is ripe to lead to confrontations between the police and the African-American and Latino communities if the Department of Justice is not brought in to prevent it," lawyers for the two former Arizona detectives urged.

At the FPD in Florence, the town seat of Pinal County, the Lieutenant obstructed a criminal investigation of an alleged rape of a Hispanic high school female by members of the local high school football team to protect his son and son's friends, who were implicated in the assault. The same Lieutenant returned a firearm to a suspect in a criminal home invasion investigation because he was friends with the suspect. When the African-American detective who confiscated the weapon confronted the Lieutenant about returning it, the Lieutenant, who was Caucasian, like the suspect, replied that the detective "couldn't go around taking guns from every white boy in town."

The Lieutenant and a Sergeant in the FPD also failed to investigate a nine-year-old boy's apparent murder by ignoring compelling evidence of the father's guilt and blaming the victim's two-and-a-half year old brother. The Lieutenant called the FPD's one African-American detective a "dirty n*****." The current FPD Chief was charged with racial discrimination by another law enforcement officer, Renatta Frazier, in a highly publicized lawsuit in 2002, and was accused of making improper comments about Hispanics in 2010 while working at two different police departments.

The PCSO has been under fire since a Caucasian deputy shot and killed an unarmed Hispanic man after he had already surrendered to police and put his hands in the air in January 2014. A month before, a PCSO deputy fired 11 rounds at two fleeing unarmed men in the dark, killing one and wounding the other. One PCSO deputy broke his hand "blatantly punching" a Hispanic suspect in 2011, in the words of former Pinal County Attorney Jim Walsh. The Sheriff's Office did not discipline any of them.

"These departments have a well documented pattern of police corruption, abuse of power, racism, and retaliation against peace officers who speak out against this corruption," Lynne Bernabei said in a letter sent to Jonathan Smith, Chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, whose office is responsible for investigating police abuse, "We urge the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the FPD and PCSO before there is a shooting or violent incident against minority communities that leads to the uprisings we see in Ferguson or Staten Island." Reverend Oscar Tillman, President of the Maricopa County Branch of the NAACP, who has worked for many years to curb police abuses, is working with the detectives and supports this request.

Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson Vonzombie, the Caucasian and African-American detectives, have filed a civil rights suit against the Florence Police Department and the Town of Florence for harassing and terminating them for their reports of police corruption and racism.