The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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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.

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