Sheriff Joe Arpaio, dictator of Maricopa Co., under investigation

The Arizona sheriff claims he's the victim of an abuse of power -- and he's one to know

By Gabriel Winant
Published January 8, 2010 4:45PM (EST)

There’s more than one way in which Joe Arpaio, the longtime sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, resembles a tinpot dictator. For years, a legion of critics has argued that Arpaio seems to suffer from few of the obligations and commitments that typically constrain an official of a democratic government. Maricopa County is massive -- it contains Phoenix, among other significant cities -- and Arpaio has done his best to militarize its law enforcement, degrade prisoners and attack immigrants, all while running roughshod over rivals and maximizing his own publicity.

The sheriff, fond of rounding up large numbers of people in massive sweeps, is probably most famous for bringing back chain gangs for prisoners in the Arizona desert. He also houses many prisoners in a tent city, boasting, "I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant." Reading about Arpaio (particularly in this excellent New Yorker profile from last year), you can’t help but get the sense that he feels like a little kid, testing his boundaries. But instead playing with crayons or dolls, Arpaio uses human beings to get attention. Invariably, he laughs off criticism by pointing out that the people he’s in charge of are, in fact, criminals. Actually, as in any prison system, many of them are still awaiting trial. Although his deputy told the New Yorker’s William Finnegan that the prisoners in the Tent City love the sheriff, they told Finnegan that their nickname for Arpaio is "Hitler."

He might not be a Nazi, but the sheriff sure knows how to act like a tyrant. And now he can check off another box on his dictator’s bucket list: He's under investigation for abuses of power.

Officials in Maricopa County confirmed yesterday that the Justice Department has convened a grand jury to investigate Arpaio. The sheriff was told last March that the federal government was looking into accusations of discrimination and illegal search and seizure. At first, Arpaio claimed to welcome the investigation and promised to cooperate fully, saying, "We have nothing to hide." By July, however, Arpaio decided to halt all interviews between his staff and investigators, and threatened to sue the federal government. He retained Robert Driscoll, a powerhouse lawyer and veteran of the Bush DOJ's civil rights division, to hit the department with legal complaints.

Driscoll and Arpaio both argue that the federal government has only taken an interest in investigating the sheriff because of a political axe to grind over immigration policy. Arpaio’s deputy, David Hendershott, put it this way to the New Yorker: "Is it an organized conspiracy to muzzle Sheriff Joe Arpaio by using the Justice Department? DOJ is going to be surprised that we find the truth to be a very strong ally. I got seven DOJ lawyers coming in here tomorrow. And I'm going to shove it up their ass."

This is something of an ironic claim, coming from Arpaio or his allies, because in October, a Phoenix TV station reported that the FBI was looking into allegations that he had used the power of his office to attack political rivals. After Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon accused Arpaio of racial profiling in his infamous immigration sweeps, Arpaio slapped him with a demand for his e-mails, phone logs and appointments. Gordon described the demand as "definitely" retaliation. "It was multiple inquiries and investigations acknowledged by some of the sheriff's own people."

In fact, getting into serious fights with fellow public officials seems like one of Arpaio’s favorite hobbies; most recently, he’s gone to war with a local judge. Last month, Arpaio accused Judge Gary Donahoe, of bribery and obstructing criminal prosecutions. Although it wasn’t clear exactly what evidence Arpaio could marshal, his allegations came shortly after Donahoe sent one of Arpaio’s officers to jail. The deputy’s offense? Refusing to apologize for stealing documents from a defendant’s lawyer's file, copying them, and then trying to sneak them back in.

The sheriff has also clashed with the chief of police of Mesa, Ariz., George Gascón, who stood up to Arpaio over his harsh law enforcement methods. Although he's no squish, Gascón believes  --like most modern urban police chiefs do -- in the importance of developing relationships and trust with local communities. Arpaio complained to the New Yorker’s Finnegan about the Mesa local government, "I never trusted that mayor. He's pro-immigrant. He's never going to fire that chief [Gascón]. We gotta raid Mesa again."

When he says "again," Arpaio refers to his last raid on Mesa -- the time he amassed sixty officers and deputized civilians outside the Mesa City Hall late at night. It’s worth running the account in full from the Arpaio profile.

The plan was to raid the Mesa city hall and the public library, to look for undocumented janitors who, according to the sheriff's office, were suspected of identification theft. Gascón was not notified beforehand. (Arpaio claims that he did inform someone at Mesa police headquarters about the raid.) A Mesa police officer spotted a large group of heavily armed men in flak jackets gathering silently in a downtown park. Gascón, when I asked about the episode, took a deep breath. "It was a very, very dangerous scenario," he said. "In my entire law-enforcement career, I have never heard of anything close to this." His officers managed to identify the armed men, but then had trouble getting a straight story from them. The raid eventually went forward, monitored by the Mesa police, and resulted in the arrests of three middle-aged cleaning women. (Arpaio's press release said that another thirteen suspected illegal immigrants were arrested later at their homes.)

If he is indicted by the grand jury and stands trial, Arpaio will surely claim that he is the victim of a political conspiracy, out to get him because of his legitimate accomplishments. It’s an argument he’s already leaning on, and a classic of the despot-on-trial genre. Slobodan Milosevic used it in The Hague; so did Saddam Hussein, for that matter, in Baghdad. It’s hard not to hope that Gordon and Gascón get a chance to testify.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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