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.
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