Originally Published: February 20, 2018 6:02 a.m.
PHOENIX — Maricopa County has tentatively agreed to settle a lawsuit over the death of a mentally ill man. The lawsuit alleges he was beaten and shot with a stun gun by law enforcement officers in an unprovoked attack at one of the jails run by then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The amount of the tentative settlement over the December 2011 death of Ernest Atencio hasn’t yet been publicly revealed. The dollar figure is expected to be provided in the days before a March 7 meeting, during which county officials are likely to vote on whether to approve the settlement.
The deal would resolve legal claims against Arpaio and his jail officers, but the Phoenix Police Department, whose officers arrested Atencio and were involved in Atencio’s booking at the jail, would remain as a target of the lawsuit. The trial is scheduled to start May 15.
The case is one of many lawsuits filed against Arpaio, now a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, over the treatment of inmates in county jails during his 24 years as metro Phoenix’s top law enforcer.
Arpaio’s decision to jail inmates in outdoor tents and enact other get-tough tactics on inmates made him popular with many voters, but critics say he created a culture of cruelty within the jails that cost inmates their lives and cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
In one such case, the county and its insurance carrier paid $8.25 million to settle a lawsuit that alleged some of Arpaio’s detention officers had forced inmate Scott Norberg into a restraint chair and pushed his head into his chest after his arrest on suspicion of aggravated assault. Norberg’s 1996 death was ruled accidental by asphyxiation.
Arpaio, through a spokesman, declined to comment Friday on the tentative settlement of the Atencio lawsuit.
The deal was revealed Wednesday in a court filing, which didn’t provide the amount of the settlement.
Atencio, 44, was arrested by Phoenix police on a misdemeanor assault charge after he frightened a woman by yelling at her and kicking at her apartment door. The officers who arrested him had had an encounter with Atencio earlier that day at a convenience store, where they concluded his erratic behavior was the result of mental illness, not intoxication.
The lawsuit accuses a Phoenix police officer of attacking Atencio after he refused to take off one of his shoes. It alleges that Arpaio’s officers joined in and formed a “dog pile” atop the inmate. A sheriff’s officer shot Atencio with a Taser, and another later struck him as other officers held him down.
Earlier, while being booked at a jail in downtown Phoenix, Atencio was seen talking to a container of peanut butter as if it were a person, even offering to give up his jacket to the container. His lawyers have said he wasn’t acting aggressively toward the officers.
At the time of the jail death, the sheriff’s office had said Atencio was combative when police brought him to jail.
The lawsuit alleges that the officers taunted Atencio for not being able to follow directions and encouraged him to make funny faces while his mug shot was taken. One officer allegedly said authorities should make it the “Mug Shot of the Week,” referring to a contest in which people can vote on their favorite booking photo.
Mike Manning, an attorney for the Atencio family, and Daniel O’Connor Jr., a lawyer representing Maricopa County in the lawsuit, declined to discuss the tentative settlement, including the dollar amount.
Attorney Kathleen Wieneke, who is representing the city of Phoenix in the lawsuit, didn’t reply to an email or Friday afternoon phone message seeking comment about the tentative agreement.