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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 with detainees at his Tent City, which has been slapped with a federal lawsuit.
Peter Yang
August 2, 2012 11:57 AM ET

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.

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