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$7 Million Settlement Proposed in Jail Death from Arpaio Era

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

The family of a mentally ill man who alleges he died after being beaten and shot with a stun gun by law enforcement officers in one of the jails in Phoenix run by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio could receive $7 million in a lawsuit settlement.

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. Excluding the $7 million from the proposed settlement to be voted on this week, Maricopa County has paid $33 million in jail-related legal claims that were filed during Arpaio's six terms as sheriff.

Lawyers previously disclosed that Maricopa County had tentatively resolved the lawsuit in the death of Ernest Atencio, but the payout amount wasn't publicly revealed until it was listed on a Board of Supervisors agenda posted Friday. The settlement is scheduled for a vote Wednesday.

The deal will resolve legal claims against Arpaio and his jail officers, but the Phoenix Police Department, whose officers arrested Atencio and were involved in his booking at the jail, would remain as a target of the lawsuit. The trial is scheduled to start May 15.

Arpaio, reached by phone Monday, was reluctant to talk about the settlement, saying only that, "It's the Board of Supervisors' decision."

Arpaio's jailing of inmates in outdoor tents and other get-tough tactics made him popular with many voters, but critics say he created a culture of cruelty within the jails that took the lives of inmates and proved costly to the county.

In one 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.

Attorney Mike Manning, who represents the Atencio family and has filed lawsuits over other deaths in county jails, said the culture in the county's jails started to change after Arpaio was voted out office in November 2016. "I can say that this is a cruel end to the Arpaio era," Manning said.

Atencio, 44, was arrested in December 2011 by Phoenix police on a misdemeanor assault charge after they say 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 at the jail 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, according to the suit.

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, police said. His lawyers have said he wasn't acting aggressively toward the officers.

At the time he died, 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.

Daniel O'Connor Jr., an attorney who represents Maricopa County, declined comment on the case Monday, while attorney Kathleen Wieneke, who represents the city of Phoenix, didn't immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

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