Aug. 23, 2009 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Sheriff Joe Arpaio has gloried in a swashbuckling style and publicity stunts since the moment he took office as Maricopa County’s top cop in 1993. Pink underwear for inmates. Green bologna at meals. Chain gangs, men and women, working in jail stripes.
His approach to law enforcement is over the top. And through the years, as reporter Dan Nowicki documents in today’s The Arizona Republic, critics say the sheriff has gone further and further over the line.
If the sheriff’s job were nothing more than a popularity contest, Arpaio would be effective. He’s won five elections.
But Arpaio is falling short of what the county needs: efficient, evenhanded law enforcement, overseen by someone intent on serving the residents of Maricopa County, not his own ego.
Arpaio’s tenure has been marked by costly lawsuits, questionable investigations of local officials and a lack of focus on some basic duties, such as warrants.
As Nowicki’s report demonstrates, the line seems to be getting blurred between aggressive and abusive, between tough and vindictive.
The Justice Department is checking out allegations of racial profiling in Arpaio’s controversial “sweeps” for illegal immigrants. The Labor Department is looking at whether county detention officers were wrongfully denied overtime pay – an issue that was raised two years ago. Sources say the FBI has interviewed public officials and employees over possible abuse of power.
Arpaio, a Republican, views it all as political.
But the sheriff has shown no compunction about going after his political enemies with expensive “fishing expeditions.” His investigation of County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, a longtime foe, includes a demand for financial-disclosure records going back to 1992. The sheriff sued the county supervisors in April for failing to produce the e-mails and cellphone logs of 36 county officials, which he had demanded without specifying any time limits. Responding to that unreasonably broad request, the county estimates, would cost more than $900,000.
Arpaio’s high-profile sweeps have drawn support from Arizonans frustrated with the lack of an effective solution to illegal immigration. But they have been a massive use of resources with little payoff. Most of the illegal immigrants that the Sheriff’s Office has nabbed were found through the simple method of screening suspects when they’re being booked into jail for other offenses.
The money would have been better spent on reopening satellite jails, which were closed to save money, and taking up traditional duties that have gone neglected, such as extraditions and warrants.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has reined in the sweeps by changing the rules for local illegal-immigration enforcement to emphasize dangerous criminals. For Arpaio, that is now fodder for a fear-mongering letter to raise funds for re-election in 2012 or, as he warns, a possible recall.
Arpaio should turn his attention to running his operations, including the jail, in ways that minimize the grounds for lawsuits, such as wrongful death. As of July 2008, the Sheriff’s Office had paid out more than $30.5 million in verdicts and claims that were settled to defendants and their attorneys since Arpaio took office in 1993, according to county figures.
County taxpayers are also shelling out money for the multiple lawsuits Arpaio has filed. That includes the amendment to his Public Records lawsuit, asking for documents detailing the supervisors’ decision to have their offices swept for listening devices after they learned the sheriff had launched a criminal investigation against Supervisor Don Stapley.
It’s hard to decide which is more preposterously wasteful: fearful supervisors who order a check for electronic bugs or a sheriff who sues to get proof that they did it.
Arpaio should stop grandstanding to keep the title of “America’s toughest sheriff” and get down to the basic job of being effective and efficient.