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'America's toughest sheriff'
Joe Arpaio, the Arizona lawman known for his harsh treatment of inmates, is himself under investigation. Has he gone too far?
 
Joe Arapio.
Joe Arapio.
Corbis

Who is Joe Arpaio?
He’s the Republican sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.—known to his fans (and to himself) as “America’s toughest sheriff.” But to his detractors, he’s “Sheriff Joke,” and his controversial tactics have landed him before a federal grand jury. Arpaio, 77, first gained national attention early in his tenure, in the 1990s, when he began dressing inmates in pink underwear to humiliate them, housing them outdoors in sweltering tents, and sweating them on chain gangs. He boasts of eliminating coffee, basketball, movies, and almost every comfort from his jails, which, he says, “should not be like the Ritz-Carlton.” More recently, Arpaio has become a champion of ridding his turf of illegal immigrants, and has dispatched hundreds of his deputies to conduct “sweeps’’ of Hispanic neighborhoods. He’s arrested more than 30,000 illegals, prompting Washington to charge that he was engaging in racial profiling and to demand he stop enforcing federal immigration law. “If Washington doesn’t like it,’’ he shot back, “I recommend they change the laws.’’

What’s he trying to accomplish?
The burly, gravelly voiced Arpaio portrays himself as a champion of law and order. A native of Springfield, Mass., he served in the Army during the Korean War, then spent 25 years with the Drug Enforcement Administration, presiding over the Mexico City and Phoenix offices. While stationed in Turkey, he says, he was responsible for “wiping out the French connection” heroin route, though that claim is unsubstantiated. As for his approach to incarceration, he says, “I like to think outside the box. We have to try everything we can to help inmates to be better citizens.” His tough-on-crime stance has won wide support in his sprawling jurisdiction, which includes Phoenix, and he has been re-elected four times by wide margins, most recently in 2008.

What do his critics say?
That he’s an abusive tyrant. The U.S. Justice Department once threatened him with a lawsuit after it found that Maricopa corrections officers had used excessive force on inmates, including hog-tying and pepper spraying. A federal district judge recently ruled that Arpaio inflicted “needless suffering” on prisoners through inadequate medical care, unhealthful food, and unsanitary living conditions. Some 2,700 lawsuits have been filed against his office, and in a five-year period ending in 2007, the county paid $30 million to settle claims. The family of one inmate, Scott Norberg, won an $8.25 million settlement after he died of asphyxiation, having been prodded with a stun gun and forced into a restraining chair with a towel stuffed into his mouth.

What’s his position on illegals?
Arpaio says he took an oath of office to “enforce all the laws,’’ and that people who cross the border illegally are stealing jobs, health care, and housing from Americans. Only by jailing illegals, he says, will the flow across the border be stopped. “They come to work,’’ he says. “You can’t work in jail.” Using as a pretext such minor offenses as cracked windshields and jaywalking, Arpaio’s deputies have repeatedly rounded up any “suspicious’’ people they come across in Hispanic neighborhoods, sparking numerous complaints of racial profiling. Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security stripped Arpaio of his power to conduct such sweeps. The next day, a defiant Arpaio launched another sweep.

Whom else has Arpaio targeted?
Pretty much anyone who has crossed him. When city officials in Mesa criticized Arpaio’s sweeps, 60 heavily armed deputies raided City Hall and the main library, looking for evidence of criminality. He investigated one of his detractors, Fountain Hills Mayor Jon Beydler, for child neglect after Beydler’s 4-year-old daughter locked herself in his car for a few minutes. When a local actor named Nick Tarr promoted a ballot initiative by calling himself “Joe Arizona” and dressing in a costume that included a Mounties-style hat, pink boxer shorts, and a T-shirt reading “I <3 Arizona,” Arpaio arrested him for impersonating a police officer.

Has Arpaio overstepped his bounds?
That very question is now before a grand jury. Federal prosecutors have reportedly subpoenaed several Maricopa County officials to determine whether Arpaio has abused his power by launching criminal investigations against dozens of Maricopa employees. Arpaio says he’s acting on legitimate suspicion of corruption and impropriety, but many of his targets have clashed with him in the past, especially over his immigration policies. “Every time you speak out, they investigate you,” said County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox. “We’re becoming the laughingstock of America.”

How has Arpaio responded?

He clearly revels in his notoriety and is as combative as ever. At a recent lunch meeting with local Republicans, he said he might soon require inmates to pedal their exercise bikes to power TVs, “though we’ll probably get sued on that one, too.” He claimed that the federal investigation was politically motivated, hatched by Democrats, and he even flirted with the idea of running for governor. “I’m getting tired of all the heat I’m taking,” he said. “But that’s okay; we’re doing the right thing. Every time they hit me, I go out and lock up more.”

Tallying the results
Despite Joe Arpaio’s reputation for toughness, his approach to fighting crime is not necessarily working. A 2008 report by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, found that in the prior four years, violent crimes in Maricopa had risen 69 percent, with homicides up 166 percent. The institute also found that 911 response times had grown longer, and that there were 42,000 unserved felony warrants. Although the budget of Arpaio’s office, not counting jails, nearly doubled between 2001 and 2008, it clears about 57 percent of cases, a rate short of its 65 percent goal, though similar to that of other metropolitan areas. On the sheriff’s department’s core functions, author Clint Bolick concluded, it “falls seriously short of fulfilling its mission.” Arpaio was not impressed. “This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said. “All the garbage he puts in there he got from the newspapers or a few critics.”

 

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