Sheriff Joe and the Crimes that Matter

"Bull Connor for the 21st Century"
"Bull Connor for the 21st Century" | Source
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas Perez
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Thomas Perez

I was reading the news. Then I stopped and started investigating the news. That is a different thing entirely, made possible for every citizen by the internet and search engines.

It started with a report that the Department of Justice released its findings regarding the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and what disturbing findings they are, even to me, and I have always found Sheriff Arpaio's take on law enforcement at best distasteful. There are times when you do not relish your suspicions being confirmed, and this is one of these times. Having Arpaio's crimes--and they are crimes--aired in public is no comfort when you think of those who have suffered due to his policies and prejudices. It is even less of a comfort when you remember all his supporters, a few of them decent enough people, but frightened and in love with the romance of the strong defender which Arpaio played so well and continues to play for the media even as he refuses to address the substance of the charges against him.

For those who have not read about this yet, let me summarize the Department of Justice's findings gained from it's press release and Assistant Attorney General, Thomas E. Perez's report (see below for links to both documents). The Justice Department found reasonable cause for belief that Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) under his leadership "engaged in a pattern or practice of misconduct that violates the Constitution and federal law", ending the main investigation of the Office and Mr. Arpaio that began under President Bush in June 2008. The Justice Department found that the abuses in Maricopa County were systemic, not individual, breaches of law and policing practice. Abuses of the Constitution and of Latinos in Maricopa were the point of policing, especially when Mr. Arpaio and his department shifted their focus to an independent course of immigration law enforcement, notable for it's headline grabbing large sweeps and raids.

In the course of this investigation, Justice Department officials and experts interviewed more than 400 persons, including Arpaio, 75 members, former and current, of the sheriff's office, 150 inmates, former and current, and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, despite Arpaio's attempts to stall and block the investigation by refusing the Justice Department access to persons and documents until a lawsuit was filed in Sept 2010. The World's Toughest Sheriff did not want anyone, federal or local, looking into his business or the way in which his office was run. He resisted when and where he could, using the power of his office and manipulating the law against citizens who questioned his actions, while attempting to stonewall the federal government in its investigation of civil rights abuses.

Specific abuses noted in the Justice Department report include:

  • Racial profiling, resulting in "driving while brown" Fourth Amendment violations.
  • A Latino in Maricopa county was 4 to 9 times more likely to be stopped than a non-Latino in the same circumstances
  • An expert statistician involved in the investigation reported that this was "the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he has ever personally seen in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature". That is quite a success story, if abusing Latinos is your aim as a law enforcement officer.
  • Over three years scrutinized by the investigators, 1/5 of reported traffic stops involving Latinos bore evidence that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable seizure was violated.
  • Racial profiling entered other actions of law enforcement as well, as Sheriff Arpaio treated citizen suspicions of dark people and those who spoke Spanish as sufficient grounds for action, without evidence of actual criminal activity. It was enough that citizens reported individuals with 'dark skin' congregating, or, in one case, that employees spoke Spanish at a McDonald's. Reports of this nature were marked as "Intelligence" by Mr. Arpaio and became grounds for action.
  • Abuse and discriminatory practices against inmates of the jail who did not operate with sufficient fluency in English.
  • Failure to obey commands given in English, though this failure did not constitute a threat or active refusal to obey on the part of the inmate, were punished with solitary confinement or lockdown.
  • Lockdown cuts off an entire pod of inmates from visitors, the canteen, tv, the phone, and inmate programs, and can last up to 72 hours. This removal of privileges from the whole group to punish a prisoner for failing to understand an order given in a language he/she does not speak, or speaks with insufficient fluency, made that inmate, the 'cause' of the lockdown, subject to retaliation and punishment from other inmates.
  • Detention officers could, and did, refuse to accept forms in Spanish when the inmate lacked fluency in English. When they did accept forms in Spanish, they delayed action in order to punish the inmate for failing to use English.
  • These forms included tank orders, through which inmates communicate their need for basic daily services.
  • Grievance forms were included, so that it was a prerequisite for reporting abuse that one know English well enough to properly fill out the form.
  • In at least one case, a detention officer refused a request for clean sheets relayed through an interpreter, insisting the inmate needing the sheets must make the request herself in English.
  • LEP (Limited English Proficiency) inmates were coerced into signing voluntary return forms, thus denying themselves basic rights regarding removal from the country, by MCSO officers without language assistance. They were made to sign documents they could not read that affected their rights under the constitution and statute.
  • Programs and services within the jail were announced in English only, limiting access to these programs and services to LEP inmates. These programs included trusteeships, which grant privileges to particular inmates, and community service programs that shortened jail time.
  • Problems at the jail had been noted before in August 1995, when unconstitutional conditions were found to exist regarding the use of excessive force and "deliberate indifference to inmates' serious medical needs". The federal government and the MCSO came to an agreement regarding these violations in October 1997, but apparently this agreement did not have a long lasting impact, as the system that fostered the abuses continued to run.
  • The MCSO's focus on immigration enforcement has been governed by a policy that makes being Latino sufficient grounds for targeting and arrest. In Maricopa County, a dark person is illegal until they can prove otherwise, and even then they might be faking their legality.
  • According to a member of Arpaio's unit focusing on the interdiction of human smugglers, it has a 'hit rate' (catches what it is supposedly designed to interdict) between 10 and 15% of the time. The rest of the time it has pulled over Latinos who might have committed a traffic violation.
  • The MCSO has acted to intimidate those citizens who criticize his policies and actions.
  • Members of Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability (MCSA) were arrested at two public meetings of the County Board of Supervisors in December 2008 for criminal trespass and disorderly conduct when they attempted to express their opposition to MCSO activities. None were convicted, and on July 6, 2010, Maricopa county and the MCSO reached a settlement with the MCSA in a lawsuit alleging wrongful arrest, malicious prosecution, and civil rights violations.
  • He has used, and his subordinates have used, frivolous lawsuits and unsubstantiated, groundless charges of ethical violations against lawyers and judges who have dared to criticize him and his office's policies.

The defense of Sheriff Arpaio's "tough" policies rely on a fear of crime and of immigrants. He is the guy who gets things done, who scares the bad guys, but crime data from Maricopa County does not support this image of the tough on crime sheriff. He is tough on Latinos, yes, but not on sexual assault, not on homicide (which increased by 166% in Maricopa County between 2004-2007), or violent crime (up over 69% during the same period).

So, I ask myself, why were people drawn to Mr. Arpaio in the first place? I think it all started with the pink underwear. People appreciated that he was willing to humiliate those within his power, those evildoers confined to jail. After all, some people reasoned, criminals deserve to be punished, and humiliated. Then they suffer, and we feel better. And the pink underwear bit was funny. It made people laugh. (On a more serious note, he applied the same color principle to handcuffs. When they started disappearing, instead of investigating how they were disappearing, who had access to them and where they were ending up, he made them pink, too.) Then, the times changed just a little, and we were not just afraid of criminals, we were angry with and frightened of Mexicans. And Mexicans tend to be brown. They tend to speak Spanish. Of course, other people--like Americans--may be brown and speak Spanish, but anger and fear are not to be reasoned away, especially not in Maricopa County.

But to see what he thought his attraction to Maricopa County voters is, I checked out his profile on the MCSO website. This website announces that Sheriff Arpaio leads the third largest Sheriff's Office in the United States, employing over 3,400 people, holding 7,500 to 10,000 in jail (2,000 of them in his famous "canvas incarceration compound"), and the nation's largest volunteer posse of 3,000 members. He has been elected 5 times, and is up for re-election again. He provides "the cheapest meals in the U.S." to inmates, at 15-40 cents a meal, two meals a day, without salt and pepper "to save tax payers $20,000 a year". So, he appeals to his constituents by busting 'illegals' (though he is not very careful to establish that those he takes in under this heading are actually illegal), abusing inmates, and saving money.

Is his time in the spotlight over? I hope so. So far, his defense to the charges has been a declaration that the Democrats are the problem, they are persecuting him for political reasons, though he refuses to respond to the specifics of the report. In the neglected sexual assault and child molestation cases that have been revealed--over 300 of them-- he has said: "If there were any victims out there, I apologize, if there were any", suggesting, of course, that there were no victims, just more Democrats, I suppose.

I hope to see Sheriff Arpaio arraigned in a court of law, indicted, and prosecuted for his crimes. Then, I hope the world's toughest sheriff receives justice, no more and no less.

Useful links related to this story



Census data on Maricopa County, Arizona

(From the U.S. Census Bureau)


Arizona has a population of 6,392,017. Of this population, 3,817,117 lived in Maricopa County in 2010.

73% of the population identifies itself as white. 29.6% identify themselves as Latino or Hispanic. 58.7% identify as non-Hispanic white.

16.8% of the population is foreign born.

27.9% speak a language other than English at home.

15.1% live below the poverty level.

The per capita income is $27,185, while the median household income is $53,284.

50.5% of the population is female.

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Comments 2 comments

Margaret Murphy profile image

Margaret Murphy 4 years ago

This man is a clone of Hoover - black mail and threats are his stock and trade - bad news all the way round


Ed Michaels profile image

Ed Michaels 4 years ago from Texas, USA Author

How much is this going to cost Maricopa county I wonder? The Justice Department findings support civil actions at many levels, and provide substantiation of many charges previously leveled against the MCSO. Five terms in office does not suggest that the county itself should consider itself morally clean in this matter.

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