The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Locking up the innocent. Arresting his critics. Racial profiling. Meet America's meanest and most corrupt politician.

joe arpaio
Peter Yang
Joe Arpaio with detainees at his Tent City, which has been slapped with a federal lawsuit.
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Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

Joe Arpaio, the 80-year-old lawman who brands himself "America's toughest sheriff," is smiling like a delighted gnome. Nineteen floors above the blazing Arizona desert, the Phoenix sprawl ripples in the heat as Arpaio cues up the Rolling Stones to welcome a reporter "from that marijuana magazine."

Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

The guided tour of Arpaio's legend has officially begun. Here, next to his desk, is the hand-painted sign of draconian rules for Tent City, the infamous jail he set up 20 years ago, in which some 2,000 inmates live under canvas tarps in the desert, forced to wear pink underwear beneath their black-and-white-striped uniforms while cracking rocks in the stifling heat. HARD LABOR, the sign reads. NO GIRLIE MAGAZINES!

From behind his desk, Arpaio pulls out a stack of news clips about himself, dozens of them, featuring the gruff, no-frills enforcer of Maricopa County, whose officers regularly round up illegal immigrants in late-night raids, his 60th made only a few days ago, at a local furniture store. "Everything I did, all over the world," he crows, flipping through the stories. "You can see this week: national magazine of Russia... BBC... Some people call me a publicity hound."

"My people said, 'You're stupid to do an interview with that magazine,'" says Arpaio, talking about Rolling Stone, "but hey, controversy – well, it hasn't hurt me in 50 years."

Arpaio is an unabashed carnival barker. And his antics might be amusing if he weren't also notorious for being not just the toughest but the most corrupt and abusive sheriff in America. As Arizona has become center stage for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil rights of Latinos, Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking the federal government over immigration policy. As such, he's become the go-to media prop for conservative politicians, from state legislators to presidential candidates, who want to be seen as immigration hard-liners. "I had Michele Bachmann sitting right there," says Arpaio, pointing to my chair. "All these presidential guys coming to see me!"

As Arpaio has faced allegations of rampant racial profiling in Arizona, he's declared war on President Barack Obama, accusing him of watering down federal immigration law to court the Latino vote – while Arpaio himself continues to investigate the legitimacy of Obama's birth certificate, the favored conspiracy of his far-right constituents. "I'm not going to get into everything else we got about the president," he brags to a conservative radio interviewer while I'm sitting in his office. "I could write 9 million books."

Arpaio refuses to acknowledge the president's recent decision to grant temporary immunity from imprisonment and deportation to illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. These people, Arpaio says, will "be arrested" in Maricopa County. In June, when the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of Arizona's controversial immigration law, the core of which allows law enforcement to demand citizenship papers from any suspected illegal immigrant they come across, Arpaio­ growled that he wouldn't "bend" to the feds, "especially when we still have state laws to enforce."

"If they think I'm going to surrender," Arpaio says, "it's not going to happen."

His rhetoric and tactics have spread fear in the Latino community in Arizona. "They hate me, the Hispanic community, because they're afraid they're going to be arrested," Arpaio boasted to a TV interviewer in 2009. "And they're all leaving town, so I think we're doing something good, if they're leaving." But the all-consuming focus on immigration has come at a cost: Arpaio is so obsessed with the often illusory crimes of immigrants that he ignored more than 400 cases of sexual abuse he was responsible for investigating, including assaults on children. And it surprised no one that JT Ready, the Arizona white supremacist who shot and killed his girlfriend, her family and himself last May, had attended Arpaio rallies.

Yet such derelictions of duty haven't hurt Arpaio among the audience he cares about most. Since 1992, despite widespread criticism from human rights groups and local political leaders, Arpaio has been re-elected four times in Maricopa­ County, the most populous area of Arizona and a bastion of retirees and conservatives for whom Arpaio is a white knight, a defender of the 1950s Shangri-La they've sought to preserve in the largely white suburbs that ring Phoenix. "I'm kind of an old-fashioned guy," says Arpaio.

Short and portly, with a bulb nose and cauliflower ears, Arpaio plays the part with aplomb. The ringtone on his outdated cellphone, which constantly bleats with requests from the media, is Frank Sinatra singing "My Way." "I don't use e-mail or u-mail or whatever it's called," he says, then swivels in his chair to a 1960s Smith Corona typewriter and taps out a message without looking, yanking the paper out for dramatic effect. "I do typing whenever I talk to reporters," it reads.

But in the middle of Arpaio's well-oiled performance, something happens that's not on the official playbill. His media aide, Lisa Allen, a former TV news anchor for a local affiliate, bursts into the room and tells me I must leave because a "personal matter" has come up. The sheriff is done for the day.

But the matter, it turns out, is more than personal: Arpaio's staff has just learned he's being sued by the Justice Department for a litany of civil rights violations against Latinos – the "unlawful and unconstitutional" targeting and detention of people because of their "race, color or national-origin." As a result, federal prosecutors charge, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has created "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos" that "reaches the highest levels of the agency."

The federal lawsuit will land within 48 hours. The curtain, for the moment, must close.

 

"Want to see the tent where all the Mexicans are?" Arpaio asks in a conspiratorial whisper. "Huh?"

The curtain is back open. And so here we are in the triple-digit heat, entering the sheriff's Tent City, where thousands of inmates he and deputies have picked up live in the open, biding their time for misdemeanors ranging from drunk driving to street-level drug dealing. "August 2nd, 1993, right here," Arpaio says, poking a bit of gravel with his foot where he broke ground on the site. "My favorite spot."

From the start, the jail was notorious for its minimalist living conditions, which Arpaio says have saved Maricopa County millions of dollars in building and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two meals a day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and coffee, and boasted that temperatures in the summer can hit 141 degrees. His constituents lapped it up, and the national press came calling. Arpaio brought back chain gangs and paraded prisoners through the streets to be jeered at. In 1996, he published his first book, America's Toughest Sheriff, which was praised by Sen. John McCain as "no-nonsense."

Flanked by Arpaio's two large body men, we pass through a series of jail yards, first for the women (where one of Arpaio's deputies warns me, "Remember that you're a married man – heh heh"), then for the male prisoners, who idle torpidly in the shade. Inside Arpaio's jails, according to the federal lawsuit, guards refer to Latino inmates as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," "stupid Mexicans" and "fucking Mexicans." Female prisoners, the suit claims, were forced to sleep in their own menstrual blood; officers refused to respond to the inmates' pleas because they were made in Spanish. Meanwhile, Arpaio's jailers allegedly circulated e-mail images of a Chihuahua in a bathing suit, calling it "a rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal."

As the prisoners recognize Arpaio, he pulls out a pen and offers to sign autographs on postcards that show him playing with puppy dogs in an air-conditioned part of the jail. Some of the women inmates take him up on the offer. When one woman says she's in for selling drugs for one of the Mexican cartels, Arpaio brightens. "Do they know me?" he asks.

In the tents reserved for "the illegals," I meet a young inmate originally from Chiapas, Mexico, who tells me through an interpreter that he's been working in the U.S. since 1996. Many members of his immediate family are American citizens, but he now faces deportation over a drunk-driving charge. Other men chime in with similar tales. Arpaio steps inside and proudly holds up a digital thermometer to show me that it is 128 degrees inside the tent.

"There's a lot of people here who did a lot of things wrong," says an inmate who steps forward to confront Arpaio, in English. "But a lot of people were just working in peace and didn't do nothing. Just leave those people alone."

The man from Chiapas asks Arpaio, "You're against us being here for work?" "No, not for work," says Arpaio. "For being here illegally. Not for work. You're here illegally and you're fake."

Arpaio, who speaks a little Spanish with a pronounced Italian accent, is hated in the communities where these men lived. In Hispanic areas of Phoenix, you can see decals on cars that read FUCK ARPAIO (which is also the title of a popular Chicano anti-Arpaio rap song). The sheriff argues that he's simply doing the job the federal government has failed to do, arresting illegal immigrants on the pretext of violating state criminal laws and then handing them over to federal authorities. Arpaio claims he's detained 51,000 illegal immigrants since 2007.

Illegal immigration is a top concern among voters in Arizona, tied closely to fears of drugs, crime and unemployment. Maricopa, the fourth-largest county in America, is 50 miles from the Mexican border, but Phoenix, its major population center, is a destination for illegal immigrants and drug dealers alike. Thirty percent of the county's residents are Hispanic, and their numbers are soaring – up 47 percent over the past decade. But the money and political power in Maricopa still reside in the largely white and conservative suburbs around Phoenix.

It is those whites and conservatives, as it happens, who employ many of the illegal immigrants targeted by Arpaio. But the sheriff is careful to steer clear of the white owners who profit from exploiting immigrant labor. In his 20 years wearing the badge, in fact, Arpaio has busted only three businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. "You've got to prove that they knew," he says, "and it's very difficult." Instead, Arpaio goes after the undocumented workers they hire, notifying the media every time he rounds up Latino fruit pickers or factory laborers. In the process, according to the Justice Department, Arpaio has frequently arrested and detained U.S. citizens and legal residents of Latino origin, including children, for hours at a time without a charge or a warrant.

Jailing Mexicans, of course, is what sells to his base. In an influential retirement community like Sun City, where the median age is 73, Arpaio serves as an armed security cop keeping out the riffraff. And he's not alone: All of the most prominent Republican politicians in the state, including Gov. Jan Brewer, have risen to power by inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment. They blame the Obama administration for failing to crack down on illegal immigrants, even though deportation has spiked under Obama. And contrary to their overheated rhetoric, there's almost no relationship between illegal immigration and crime. "Illegal immigrants make up less than 10 percent of those arrested," says Charles Katz, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who conducts annual studies on crime in Maricopa County. "They're involved in less criminal activity than native-born Americans." Illegal immigrants, the studies show, are twice as likely to be employed than U.S. citizens and half as likely to use illegal drugs – yet thanks to Arpaio's tactics, they're far more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.

But Arpaio doesn't care about the complicated realities of immigration. For him, the equation is simple: Fear equals votes. While I'm with him, he happily trumpets reports that Mexican drug cartels and prison gangs are offering a reward for his head – proof, in his mind, of his effectiveness, and evidence that the Latino community harbors criminals. "He's vilified Latinos in such a way that normal people, they're scared to death," says Bill Richardson, a retired police officer. Such terror, in turn, only makes it harder for the police to do their jobs. "It creates fear in the Latino community for law enforcement," he says.

Joe Arpaio's itinerant career didn't predict his rise to notoriety. When he was first elected, in 1992, he'd been out of law enforcement for a decade and was working for his wife's travel agency. But he'd had brushes with fame. He led President Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration parade in 1956, and he once arrested Elvis Presley in Las Vegas for speeding on a motorcycle (though he didn't realize who Presley was until he brought him into the station). In 1969, while working for a predecessor of the Drug Enforcement Administration, he partnered with G. Gordon Liddy for something called Operation Intercept, stopping every car that left Mexico to check for drugs.

Still, the signs were there. In 1981, a female investigator at the DEA named Laura Garcia sued Arpaio for race and gender discrimination. She later dropped the suit when she transferred to another agency, but she maintains that Arpaio actively sought to marginalize Hispanic agents in the Phoenix office. "He's not upholding the law as sheriff," she says. "He's just harassing and doing what he's always wanted to do to Hispanics." By the time Arpaio retired from the DEA in 1982, he was known among colleagues as "Nickel Bag Joe," in honor of his penchant for making small-time drug busts.

The role of sheriff retains a powerful hold on the public imagination in Arizona. Viewed as a last, colorful vestige of the Old West, the job has always attracted characters like Sheriff "Marryin'" Jerry Hill, who was married nine times, and Sheriff Dick Godbehere, a former lawn-mower repairman who set up bogus drug stings for local TV stations. But the sheriff is also the most powerful law-enforcement officer in rural and suburban areas, able to literally "make the law" by choosing which laws to enforce and which to ignore. Arpaio, in addition to his savvy media stunts, makes a point of calling himself a "constitutional" sheriff, emphasizing his lofty mandate to uphold the U.S. Constitution – a political dog whistle to states' rights advocates and white supremacists who have a deep-seated hatred of the federal government.

Arpaio began focusing on illegal immigration about six years ago, after he watched an ambitious politician named Andrew Thomas get elected chief prosecutor of Maricopa County by promising to crack down on illegal immigrants. In 2006, shortly before the Department of Homeland Security empowered local law-enforcement agencies to act as an arm of the federal immigration effort, Arpaio created a Human Smuggling Unit – and used Thomas' somewhat twisted interpretation of the law to focus not on busting coyotes and other smugglers, but on going after the smuggled.

The move may have been indefensible from a legal standpoint, but it was political gold: Arpaio quickly ramped up his arrest numbers, bringing him a round of fresh media attention. The sheriff made a splash by setting up roadblocks to detain any drivers who looked like they could be in the U.S. illegally – a virtual license to racially profile Hispanics. Reports of pull-overs justified by little or no discernible traffic violations were soon widespread: Latinos in the northeastern part of the county, one study shows, were nine times more likely to be pulled over for the same infractions as other drivers. Arpaio's men, the Justice Department alleges, relied on factors "such as whether passengers look 'disheveled' or do not speak English." Some stops were justified after the fact: A group of Latinos who were photographed sitting in a car, neatly dressed, were described in the police report as appearing "dirty," the ostensible rationale for the pull-over. Testifying on the stand on July 24th in a federal trial over his department's blatant record of racial profiling, Arpaio himself acknowledged that he once called the crackdown a "pure program to go after the illegals and not the crime first."

By loudly targeting illegal immigration, Arpaio has become a regular on Fox News and a hero to the Tea Party. His second book, published in 2008, is modestly titled Joe's Law: America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else That Threatens America. He travels the country endorsing right-wing candidates and attracting millions of dollars in donations from political allies outside Arizona, giving him a financial advantage his opponents can't match. And he regularly courts celebrities. He has made a show of including action stars like Lou Ferrigno and Steven Seagal in his immigration posses, the informal groups Arpaio uses to conduct freelance patrols on behalf of the county. He even swore in Ted Nugent, whose self-professed goal for illegal immigrants is to "shoot 'em dead," as a "special deputy."

"Arpaio knows how to move the needle when it comes to appealing to the base," says George Gascón, a former police chief in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa who has engaged in a protracted battle with Arpaio over the sheriff's treatment of Latinos. "What he did very artfully is piggy-back on this fear of illegal immigration that was becoming so prevalent in border states like Arizona. He was able to capitalize on that and he became the hero, the only guy who would single-handedly go after it."

When local political leaders in Phoenix have criticized Arpaio's tactics, the sheriff has simply used his power to go after the critics. In 2006, he formed an anti-corruption unit led by his chief deputy, David Hendershott, a large, intimidating man whose own co-workers used Darth Vader's theme song as a ringtone to herald his incoming calls. The unit, which worked hand-in-glove with county prosecutor Andrew Thomas, was tasked with rooting out political corruption, but quickly evolved into a de facto hit squad aimed at Arpaio's enemies. Hendershott conducted investigations and filed complaints against the county manager, four county judges and Maricopa's entire board of supervisors, all of whom had crossed Arpaio in one way or another. In one instance, the sheriff's office arrested a county board member who had questioned the costs associated with Arpaio's immigration crackdown, holding him in jail for several hours without ever filing a charge.

Nor was the press immune to Arpaio's high hand. In 2007, after the Phoenix New Times published an aggressive report on the sheriff's real-estate dealings, a special prosecutor appointed by Thomas issued subpoenas for more than two years of computer records from the newspaper, seeking everything published "regarding Sheriff Joe Arpaio from January 1st, 2004, to the present" – including information on anyone who had visited the website and read the stories. When the paper's top editor and CEO refused, they were arrested in late-night raids on their homes while their families looked on, and charged with violating grand-jury secrecy by reporting on the subpoenas. The case was thrown out, the prosecutor was fired, and the New Times has sued for $15 million, a suit still making its way through the courts.

Arpaio has even fought with other law enforcement. In 2008, a series of crime sweeps by Arpaio's officers led to public protests in Mesa over harassment and racial profiling. To prevent Arpaio from sending officers to confront the protesters, as he had done in other towns, Mesa police chief George Gascón cordoned off the protesters and invited free-speech lawyers to represent them. Infuriated, Arpaio responded by conducting a late-night raid on the Mesa City Hall, ostensibly looking for illegal immigrants. He arrested a handful of janitors, all of whom turned out to be documented workers – and then raided Gascón's police station to obtain the workers' computer files under the suspicion that their papers were invalid.

In the past decade, hundreds of lawsuits, ranging from wrongful deaths in Arpaio's jails to unlawful arrests, have been brought against the sheriff's office. Far from saving money with Arpaio's on-the-cheap Tent City, Maricopa County has been forced to shell out more than $50 million to defend itself against lawsuits brought by the sheriff's victims – including nearly $1 million awarded to one of the county supervisors who was illegally targeted by Arpaio's anti-corruption unit.

Arpaio, for his part, refuses to acknowledge the validity of any of his critics. They're all Democrats and political opportunists, he says, "trying to make a buck."

The morning after Joe Arpaio learns about the Justice Department lawsuit, he holds a pre-emptive press conference at a police-training center on the outskirts of town. His staff had labored until midnight to complete a brochure detailing new guidelines for improving community relations. The cover image is of a Latino family petting a police dog.

"The sheriff is a model of community outreach," Arpaio's deputy proclaims at the press conference. "He's a very public person."

But if the brochure is meant to make nice with Latinos – and neutralize the rationale for the Justice Department's lawsuit – you wouldn't know it from Arpaio's grim visage as he sits listening to the presentation. When a local reporter asks about a comment Arpaio made in a deposition, dismissing complaints by Latinos as "civil rights crap," Arpaio gets visibly agitated.

"Do you really think I'm going to hide and not talk anymore?" he asks. "No. I love dealing with the Hispanic community!"

Last December, the Justice Department released findings from a three-year investigation into Arpaio's office, publishing a 22-page report of numerous instances of racial profiling and civil rights abuses. Instead of filing a lawsuit, prosecutors requested that Arpaio accept a federal monitor inside his office to observe his operation, something the Justice Department successfully tried with the Los Angeles Police Department in 2001. Arpaio refused to cooperate, claiming that the feds didn't have any evidence. "After they went after me," he bragged to an audience at an anti-immigration fundraiser, "we arrested 500 more just for spite."

The same day the Justice Department released its report, Homeland Security stripped Arpaio of his power to jail and deport illegal immigrants on behalf of the federal government. The sheriff vowed to keep going after immigrants by arresting them for things like minor traffic infractions and then turning them over to be deported. He also dismissed the Justice Department report as a political move by the Obama administration, meant to curry favor with Latinos in the upcoming presidential election. "I think they had this planned," Arpaio says. "Hispanic vote. Election year. I'm the poster boy."

The morning after Arpaio's press conference, when the Justice Department's lawsuit is officially filed, federal prosecutors hold their own press conference, across the street from the sheriff's office. Tom Perez, the attorney for Justice's civil rights division, makes a point of calling Arpaio's new community-outreach brochure "an admission of the existence of a problem."

"At its core," he says, "this is an abuse-of-power case." The lawsuit includes allegations that Arpaio sought to "punish" critics "for their criticism and to prevent future criticism," including false and unethical prosecutions of political enemies and arrests of people who had expressed disagreement at county board meetings "by applauding."

Sitting in his office later that morning, Arpaio dismisses Perez as trying to score points with Latinos. "How did he open?" asks Arpaio. "'Buenos días!' Now, why would you open a press conference in Spanish? Why? 'Buenos días!' It doesn't matter. He's talking to the media and the public. Why is he saying 'buenos días'? Are we in Mexico here?"

Arpaio likes to hand out copies of the letter he received from the Justice Department in March 2009 informing him of the investigation, pointing to it as proof that the move is a political hit job by Obama. In reality, the investigation was set in motion during George W. Bush's final term, but it wasn't formally announced until the spring after Obama was elected. Perez adds that the fact-finding began well before he arrived in office, prompted by years of press reports and complaints from individuals and organizations in Arizona over abuses by Arpaio and his men.

As an elected official, Arpaio has had no check on his power other than the voters of Maricopa County, who have consistently looked the other way as evidence of abuses mounted, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by the local East Valley Tribune that detailed Arpaio's practice of racial profiling. The sheriff's office, which cooperated with the newspaper, was "operating so blatantly that they didn't mind if a reporter was around while they were doing really bad policing," notes George Gascón, the former police chief in Mesa.

Arpaio is similarly brazen about the Justice Department lawsuit, promising to eviscerate the claims before a jury. "They're gonna have to come up with witnesses and all the information they keep saying they have, which they won't give to us," he seethes. "So we'll see 'em in court." He calls the Justice Department's evidence of civil rights abuses "isolated incidents, and we can tear that apart too."

Perez promises that the Justice Department isn't bluffing. "We never file a lawsuit that we're not confident we can prove," he says. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is a crisis of confidence in many corners of the Maricopa County community. They're supposed to unite communities, not divide communities. This is a divided community."

I did it myyyy way...

It's Joe Arpaio's cellphone. After the Justice Department's press conference, he is ready to bask in the limelight.

"Hey, Neil Cavuto! I love ya, Neil," Arpaio says, winking at me while taking a call from the Fox News host. "You know me, I'm Italian like you are. We talk, talk, talk... I miss you, Neil. How come you don't call me on good stuff, like when I lock up animal abusers?"

Arpaio has planned another press conference for after lunch. On two separate occasions, he's made a point of telling me that when he enters a Mexican restaurant, the staff runs out the back door – his idea of a joke about illegal immigrants working in kitchens. When I ask him to show me, he agrees – even insisting his deputies take us to a "dangerous" restaurant. Instead, we drive to a chain place called Garcia's, where Arpaio is greeted as a conquering hero by aging white diners with dentures and canes. A silver-haired man with Pall Malls in his pocket flags Arpaio at the entrance: "'Sup, Joe. Good to see you!"

When a Latina waitress brings Arpaio his iced tea, he eyeballs it suspiciously. "Is it safe?" he asks, tilting his head toward the kitchen. "Anybody recognize me in there?" Then he whispers out of the side of his mouth: "Don't tell the cook I'm here."

"I just know we lost half of the employees," the waitress laughs, clearly in on the staff-running-out-the-back-door joke.

Last year, as scrutiny by the Justice Department began to heat up, Arpaio announced that he was launching an investigation into the authenticity of Barack Obama's birth certificate, ostensibly on behalf of an Arizona Tea Party group that signed a petition requesting he look into it as a matter of law enforcement. "I'm not doing this for politics," he insists over lunch. "No politician will talk about it. So I know that's a risk too. If you want to call it a risk. But I did it. I stand by it. Regardless of the politics."

Joining us for lunch is Mike Zullo, an investigator from Arpaio's "cold-case posse," who has been tasked with "clearing the president" of any wrongdoing. Over tacos and enchiladas, Zullo tries to make the case that the official seal on Obama's long-form birth certificate the White House issued last year is fishy. "We have run this through over 500 different tests, trying to get computer software to do this, to replicate it, and it cannot be done," he says. "There's major problems. There's major implications for this."

"If things go right," Arpaio chimes in, the birther investigation "should take us into the White House."

How often do Arpaio and Zullo discuss this investigation? I ask.

"A lot," says Zullo.

Zullo goes on to claim that there is a "nationwide news blackout" of the issue, including at Fox News. He says the network's owner, Rupert Murdoch, was pressured by Democratic donor and Republican bogeyman George Soros to never discuss the issue on air – or else the Obama administration would revoke Murdoch's broadcast license.

"It's been told to me that Murdoch is petrified over this," says Zullo. "Fox will not touch it."

When we get back to his office, Arpaio immediately does an interview with Fox News in which he talks to the correspondent about the birther investigation. In July, Arpaio goes on to make headlines everywhere by claiming – without introducing any actual evidence – that he has officially proved Obama's birth certificate is fraudulent.

And the conspiracies don't end there. Arpaio insists that the Justice Department's accusations, starting last December, have all been timed to divert attention from public-relations problems for Attorney General Eric Holder, including the controversy over the botched gun-running sting known as Operation Fast and Furious.

So it's all orchestrated? I ask.

"Orchestrated," says Arpaio, savoring the word. "I like that."

 

Like a lot of Joe Arpaio's entourage, Mike Zullo is an Italian-American from the Northeast, a large-muscled and mustachioed man who carries a 9-millimeter strapped to his belt (Arizona allows concealed firearms). Arpaio was raised in an extended Italian community in Massachusetts after his mother died giving birth to him. One of Arpaio's favorite stock lines is that his father came to the U.S. from Italy "legally." After a 50-year career in law enforcement, Arpaio still surrounds himself with other Italian-Americans, including both his bodyguards. He calls them his "Italian mafia."

Arpaio insists he's not a racist. And even some of his critics believe him, saying he's simply an opportunist who saw illegal immigration as a political hobby­horse he could ride to greater glory. But when I ask Arpaio how many Latinos work in his headquarters in downtown Phoenix, where he employs about 40 people, he can think of only one.

"Well, we've got Paul," he says, stumped. "It's hard to explain. You know why? I don't care. I don't even think of that question you're saying. I did mention Paul because it's a high-level position. I can't even tell you who's Hispanic. We got Hispanic secretaries there, I presume, if you walk around in that floor." (He can, however, tell you who is Italian, to a man.)

"You go around here," he says, pointing to his fellow diners in Garcia's, "and most of the Hispanics come up to me and say, 'Thank you, Sheriff. I'm here legally. Thank you for your job.'"

I ask how his polling is doing.

"I have no idea," he says, "but I think I'm higher than ever."

But the Joe Arpaio show may be losing steam, especially as evidence emerges that his focus on illegal immigrants has come at the expense of serious crimes in his county. Last year, Arpaio was stung by a report that showed his office had failed to adequately investigate more than 400 sex crimes in Maricopa County from 2005 to 2007. The slipshod investigations came to light only when the Phoenix suburb of El Mirage dropped a law-enforcement contract it had with the sheriff's office – and discovered that Arpaio's men had left behind piles of unfinished cases, many of them involving children and illegal immigrants.

According to Bill Louis, the former El Mirage police chief who discovered the cases, Arpaio's investigators had been moved off the sex crimes and onto illegal immigration. "He depleted the manpower so he could further his politically motivated investigations," says Louis, who has written a book titled If There Were Any Victims, a line Arpaio used in a grudging apology for what happened.

Louis says people frequently ask him if he's afraid Arpaio will retaliate. "What does that tell you about this guy?" he says. "About this elected sheriff who is supposed to be protecting our rights? For godsake, this is America."

But Arpaio's days of retaliation may be over. In the past year, some of Arpaio's top allies have been ensnared by investigations into their activities. Arpaio forced his chief deputy, David Hendershott, to resign after an internal report emerged detailing years of alleged corruption and misconduct, from spreading bogus statistics in the media to falsely charging and arresting political opponents. Andrew Thomas, the former attorney general for Maricopa County, was disbarred last spring after an ethics panel ruled he had abused his powers by falsely prosecuting local officials for a nonexistent criminal conspiracy to attack the sheriff's office. The local news called Thomas a "monster" created by Joe Arpaio.

What's more, given Obama's recent easing of federal immigration policy, and the Supreme Court ruling that curbed Arizona's harsh immigration law, Arpaio is finding it harder to deport Mexicans who have committed no crimes. Now, if he turns innocent detainees over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are supposed to be released. That means Arpaio's power to evict Mexicans from Maricopa – the issue he's been exploiting for political gain for the past six years – has effectively been neutered.

For Arpaio, the loss of his deportation power simply offers another opportunity to bash the federal government. "If ICE says, 'We're not coming,' what do I do with these people?" Arpaio asks. "Tell them, 'Welcome to America,' and put them back on the street? After 50 years of law enforcement, it just doesn't smell right."

Arpaio says he now plans on publicizing every illegal immigrant he releases from custody, turning them into symbols for the media, as much as George H.W. Bush used Willie Horton to scare voters during his 1988 presidential campaign. "I'm going to make a record," says Arpaio, "and if they commit a crime in the next hour..."

But as his police powers ebb, so does his influence as a political player on the national stage – the spotlight Arpaio most covets. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, has yet to appear with Arpaio this year or to ask for his endorsement, as he did back in 2008. "He forgot who I was," complains Arpaio. "When he came to town, he never invited me to his function this time around." That's because Arizona, long a GOP stronghold, could be up for grabs this fall, thanks to the rapidly growing, and increasingly empowered, Latino population. The conventional wisdom is that Romney will need at least 40 percent of the Latino vote to win key battleground states – meaning he can ill afford to antagonize Hispanic voters by cozying up to Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio, who endorsed Rick Perry during the GOP primary, considers Romney a fair-weather hard-liner when it comes to immigration. "In the primary, he was acting pretty tough – 'Lock them all up!' I don't do that. I just say it all the time."

Even among Arpaio's allies, there is growing concern that the sheriff's constant political baiting may be yielding diminishing returns for the cause of law enforcement in Maricopa County. A close associate of Arpaio's tells me that voters who support the sheriff, as well as key members of his own staff, are tiring of the media circus. "Such a great guy, and a lot of people love him – but the narcissistic part of him, and the hey-everybody-look-at-me thing, is just sickening sometimes," the associate says. "I'm amazed that it's gone on as long as it has."

No one believes Joe Arpaio will lose his own re-election bid this fall, least of all Joe Arpaio. Half of voters in Maricopa County still approve of him, despite his almost entirely negative press. He has raised $7 million in campaign funds, most of it from out-of-state donors who support his crackdown on illegal immigrants. Arpaio envisions himself being sheriff of Maricopa County well into his nineties, his 50-caliber pistol strapped to his wheelchair. The formula is clear: Keep stirring controversy, keep stoking the media, keep raking in the campaign contributions from far-flung donors. Just put on a show.

Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!

"After your article," promises Arpaio, "I'll probably get another $2 million."

This story is from the August 16th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1163: August 16, 2012