Arpaio, an 81-year-old who calls himself America’s “toughest sheriff,” is known for illegally detaining Latinos in Maricopa, Ariz., where he reigns, and he has been sued by citizens and the Justice Department for doing so.
He’s notoriously tough — and arguably brutal — towards inmates, too. Sheriff Joe has made headlines for calling his “Tent City” jail a “concentration camp,” and for making the inmates there wear pink underwear, eat only two meals a day, and endure unbearably hot temperatures in the summer. Three inmates died after being forced into “restraint chairs” Arpaio kept in his jails.
Arpaio has undoubtedly made national news more than any other sheriff in the nation. He’s also undoubtedly the most reviled lawman, too. How did one man come to have so much power and engender so much venom?
The Toughest Jails Ever
Arpaio ran for sheriff after in the early ’90s, after a 25-year stint with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Arpaio, the son of immigrants from Naples, “pummelled his opponents with gusto,” according to a 2009 profile in The New Yorker.
The main part of his work was operating the county jails, a task he knew had the potential for “political gold,” according to The New Yorker. He set to work right away building his Tent City to solve an overcrowding problem. He saved money by ditching salt and pepper at the jails, cutting back to two meals a day, and depriving inmates of their morning coffee.
Sheriff Joe’s Tent City — a place where inmates live in Army surplus tents and work in chain gangs — almost immediately captured the attention of the Justice Department. The feds began investigating Tent City in 1995. Two years later, the Justice Department issued a report confirming that Sheriff Joe’s infamous Tent City used excessive force and gratuitously used pepper spray and restraint chairs, Slate’s Tom Zoellner has reported.
The Justice Department gave Arpaio a barely perceptible tap on the wrist. He agreed to a settlement in which he limited use of pepper spray and improved inmates’ grievance procedures, according to Slate.
Then-U.S. Attorney Janet Napolitano led the Justice Department investigation and later got Arpaio’s endorsement when she ran for governor. Napolitano took a largely hands-off policy toward Arpaio after she won her election, according to the Slate story.
But Arpaio began to make other enemies, including legal ones. The jail system run by Arpaio has been hit with a staggering number of lawsuits by inmates and their families. From 2004 through November 2007, Sheriff Joe and his jails were targeted by 2,150 lawsuits, some of which alleged brutality against inmates, the Phoenix New Times reported.
To put this in perspective, the Phoenix New Times noted that the jail systems in New York, Houston, and Chicago combined were hit with 43 lawsuits that same period.
An Obsession With Immigration That Began In 2005
In 2005, Arpaio became “obsessed” with immigration after the state of Arizona passed a law meant to crack down on the smuggling of immigrants, Mother Jones reported. This obsession earned him ire of immigrant advocates in the aughts. In 2008, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon attacked Arpaio for his immigration “sweeps” that involved checking random cars for illegal immigrants. Mother Jones’ Aura Bogado reported from the trenches of his war on illegal immigration:
Native Americans told me they were targeted because deputies mistook them for Latinos. Latinos told me of being stopped randomly on the street and shouted at — or worse — by officers demanding identification. Alex, a third-generation US citizen, was at a Circle K buying water while his parents waited outside. He ran out when he heard a group of Arpaio’s deputies yelling at them to produce their papers.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that Arpaio was also a supporter of Arizona’s controversial “paper’s please” law of 2010 that requires law enforcement to check people’s ID if they have a “reasonable suspicion” somebody was in the country illegally.
But Arpaio will still keep getting sued. People may also try to act on personal vendettas against him, and his office is apparently aware of that danger. His taxpayer-funded security detail earned $US120,000 in overtime from June 2012 through June 2013, the Arizona Republic reported.
But the people of Maricopa County like him — at least enough people to keep getting him elected. After his reelection the LA Times noted how impervious his career is to scandal, writing that his career is “apparently coated in Teflon.”
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