Sheriff Joe: Modern hero or self-promoting racist?

Arpaio has caught a lot of heat over two issues: Alleged unconstitutional conditions at the jails and racial discrimination in law enforcement directed against Hispanics


By Bob Walsh

Joe Arpaio is probably the best-known local lawman in the country. Most people couldn't tell you who the Sheriff of Los Angeles County or the Chief of Police of New York City are. If you ask the man on the street who the Sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., is, they could probably tell you. If you mention the name Joe Arpaio, you will almost certainly get a response — and most likely a strong response.

Joseph M. Arpaio was born in 1932 to immigrant parents. His mother died giving birth to him. His dad owned a grocery store. He was in the army from 1950 to 1954 and became a cop in Washington D.C. after his discharge.

AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinA defiant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to the media in December, 2011.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
A defiant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to the media in December, 2011.

He then moved to the Las Vegas P.D. and from there to the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the DEA. He was with them for 25 years, including some overseas assignments. When he left he was the administrative head of the Arizona office.

He was first elected Sheriff in 1992. His office is responsible for general law enforcement within Maricopa County, as well as operating of the jails, courtroom security, warrant service, prisoner transportation and process serving. All of the things a county sheriff typically does in this country.

There is no doubt that Arpaio has been a successful self-promoter. Any successful elected official must be that. He appeared in a short-lived Fox network show called "Smile, You're Under Arrest."

In this show wanted persons were tricked into showing up to be arrested. His tent-city at the county jail earned him a lot of notoriety, and not a little praise from the local taxpayers. Prisoners are fed only twice a day and are not allowed pornography. The porn ban went to the 9th Circuit Court, where it was upheld.

He operates a radio station called KJOE, which broadcasts educational programming and classical music, four hours a day five days a week. The tent city is under constant attack from prisoner rights groups as being inhumane.

Arpaio has also reinstituted chain-gang work details. They are mandatory for some male prisoners and voluntary for female and juvenile prisoners. Juveniles earn credit towards high school graduation for their work. He also arranges for all male citizen and resident alien prisoners to register for Selective Service, citing federal requirements. I should point out that my own agency, the California Dept. of Corrections, operated community work crews for many years. These were crews of semi-skilled or skilled minimum custody inmate workers who performed work for tax-exempt public agencies.

This could include something as basic as brush clearing, typical chain-gang type work. It also often included light construction and building maintenance. These crews were eventually discontinued due to the relatively high staff cost with one officer watching about 20 inmates at a time, plus transportation, scheduling and other ancillary costs. They were of course not chain-gangs.

Arpaio has caught a lot of heat over two issues: Alleged unconstitutional conditions at the jails and racial discrimination in law enforcement directed against Hispanics. (The California state system has faced the same issues with few complaints of racial discrimination as the cause.)

The Federal District Court has ruled twice, in 2008 and 2010, that the conditions in the jails violated the prisoner's rights, especially with regard to medical care. This action was triggered by an ACLU lawsuit. The court has ordered him to observe USDA dietary guidelines with regards to prisoner meals and ensure that prisoners have uninterrupted access to prescribed medication and medically ordered mental health care.

The main thrust of the beef by many with Arpaio is alleged institutionalized discrimination against Hispanics. He has recently agreed to take part in discussions with the Feds over the matter, but he is quite insistent that he wants them to quote chapter and verse re: what exactly they allege him to have done or not done.

Sheriff Arpaio has been quoted in a recent article as saying, "I have a suspicion that politics might be involved in this, but we want to resolve (the case)." The county legal counsel has said that the Sheriff will go to court if necessary to compel the Feds to put up or shut up. The Dept. of Justice has declined comment on this position.

The Feds maintain that Sheriff Joe must increase the training for his jail staff and patrol staff in the constitutional performance of their duties. This includes interacting with prisoners with limited English language skills and collecting data on traffic stops, which they allege are disproportionally directed against Hispanics. In addition the Feds are demanding that the Sheriff set up a system for filing complaints against his staff that will not generate retaliation against the complainants.

Clearly the Sheriff has strong feelings about illegal immigration. He also wants to run his jail as efficiently as possible for the benefit of the taxpayers. He not only accepts that jail is usually an unpleasant place he seems to want it to be so, in order to discourage repeat business. That attitude does not line up with the current warm-and-fuzzy ideas of how incarceration should be done.

Arpaio doesn't care. Thus far the citizens, taxpayers and voters of Maricopa County seem to agree with him. He survived a recall attempt in 2007 when the backers of the recall could not even get enough signatures to get the matter onto the ballot.

Does his attitude foster a discriminatory attitude by his staff towards Hispanics in general? Possibly. In an organization of any size there will be aberrant employees, and if their aberration tends to lean in directions they think the administration approves of, or at least tolerates, those attitudes will tend to pop to the surface. Is that the Sheriff's fault? To some extent yes, it is. Especially if he tolerates or even encourages the behavior.

My own opinion, for what that might be worth to the readers, is that there is plenty of blame on both sides of the question. I am dubious of the Feds' motives in this matter. They blatantly refuse to enforce their own immigration laws but work very hard to prevent local authority from doing so. Any legal structure that can ignore the actions of the New Black Panthers in attempting to intimidate voters is, in my mind, highly suspect.

I am also very much bothered by Arpaio's blatant self-promotion. Does that mean his is a bad administrator? No, it doesn't, though it might mean he is squandering resources that could best be used elsewhere. That is not, and should not be, a federal issue. In the end the voters of Maricopa County will probably make their own decision for their own reasons. Arpaio has announced his intention to run for reelection.

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