Sheriff Joe says protests, probe won't wear him down
Many say that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is abusing his power and focusing too much on immigration
PHOENIX — With a sheriff's helicopter beating overhead, the man known as "Sheriff Joe" stood behind a line of officers as 10,000 people marched past - but this was not the usual show of affection and support for Joe Arpaio.
"Joe must go! Joe must go," whole families chanted, as they rounded the corner in front of the county jail complex run by the five-term Maricopa County sheriff famed for his confrontational tactics, his harsh jail policies and a gift for publicity. The parade of mostly brown-skinned people wanted to show they hated his trademark immigration patrols.
For years, Arpaio has been the rare politician whose popularity remained rock solid no matter the criticism. He was the self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff," unbeatable at the polls.
Today, however, some indicators have changed for the 77-year-old lawman - and it's not just the marching in the streets.
His soaring approval ratings dropped to 39 percent in one recent poll. Critics are emboldened by a federal grand jury that's examining abuse-of-power allegations against him and a second federal investigation that he says focuses on his immigration enforcement.
Arpaio and Andrew Thomas, the top Maricopa County prosecutor and a chief ally, face intense criticism for mounting what many people see as a political blood feud. They filed criminal charges against two county supervisors and the county's presiding criminal judge, and they've also ignited a spate of costly lawsuits. Arpaio and Thomas say they can't ignore credible allegations of corruption.
The charges against one supervisor were dismissed by a judge on Feb. 24. Thomas said he would seek to have charges against the other two officials dismissed and planned to turn the three investigations over to special prosecutors.
County Manager David Smith said sheriff's investigators went to the homes of 70 county and court staffers on nights and weekends last year in an attempt to intimidate.
Arpaio's message was clear, according to Smith: "We know where you live. We know where to find you. Do something we don't like, and you're at risk." Fear was behind a decision by county officials to sweep their offices for possible listening devices, at a cost of $14,000; no bugs were found.
Dozens of lawyers rallied outside a courthouse in late December to protest the criminal charges against Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe. And a prosecutor from a neighboring county who took over an earlier case against one county supervisor eventually turned against Arpaio and Thomas, likening their actions to "totalitarianism."
Thomas said he wasn't worried about his allegiance to the sheriff. "The only thing I worry about is making sure I've done my utmost to do my job," the prosecutor said.
In the eyes of critics, Arpaio is a racist bully driven by a hunger for publicity who has helped manufacture criminal charges against people who crossed him politically. They say he treats powerless people harshly because it's popular with voters.
But to his supporters, he is a standup guy who is doing what the public wants and is motivated by nothing more than a sense of duty. They say he's the only local police boss who has gotten off his duff to do something about illegal immigration and local corruption.
Love him or hate him, Arizonans are buzzing with one question: Will this latest round of controversy bring Sheriff Joe down?
Arpaio's response: He has survived other storms.
In a voice that sometimes evokes John Wayne, he attributes his longevity to a strong work ethic and a willingness to speak with reporters, which helped make him a nationally known figure. He also brags about his success in raising $1.2 million in campaign money over one year in a down economy.
He plans to seek another term in two years. "If people don't want me, go vote for somebody else," Arpaio said. "But it ain't going to happen."
He wasn't always Sheriff Joe.
After a stint in the Army, the native of Springfield, Mass., worked as a police officer in Washington and Las Vegas until he was hired by the federal agency that would become the Drug Enforcement Administration.
He went to Turkey to try to infiltrate opium producers, made stops in San Antonio, Baltimore and Boston, and became a regional director in Mexico City, where his job was to persuade Latin American governments to go after traffickers. His final stop was as the DEA boss in Arizona.
After retiring from that job and then helping his wife, Ava, run her travel agency, Arpaio decided to run for sheriff and unseated the incumbent in 1992.
Early on, he won points with voters for housing inmates in canvas tents during Phoenix's triple-digit summer heat, making them wear pink underwear, banning cigarettes and porn magazines, and serving a green bologna diet. He created old-time chain gangs. Complaints mounted about brutality in his jails.
One case came in Arpaio's first term. Scott Norberg, jailed in 1996 for allegedly assaulting a police officer, died during a struggle with detention officers who had bound him into a restraint chair and pushed his head into his chest.
The county and its insurance carrier paid $8.25 million to settle a lawsuit over Norberg's death, which had been ruled accidental by asphyxiation by the county medical examiner. As in other, similar investigations into deaths in Arpaio's jails, no charges were brought against the officers involved. "They did nothing wrong," Arpaio said.
Michael Manning, a lawyer who won $20 million in damages for five deaths at Arpaio's jails, said the sheriff created a culture of cruelty inside the walls and that he masterfully plays on prejudices against illegal immigrants. And yet the public repeatedly has re-elected him and so shares blame, Manning said
"You can't escape the fact that if people would read and understand more about politicians like Arpaio, fewer would vote for him," he said.
Sheriff Joe loves to stick it to critics, whose complaints he calls "garbage."
During the Jan. 16 protest outside the jail, Arpaio drew a horseshoe-shaped phalanx of TV cameras while the marquee name on the other side, singer Linda Ronstadt, also grabbed attention.
To prevent the protest from inspiring disruptions among inmates, the sheriff cranked up music inside - with a Sheriff Joe twist: He blared one of Ronstadt's records.
"I let people know I'm the sheriff," Arpaio said, pronouncing his title as "the SHUR-ff." "I'm not a social worker."
Since early 2008, Arpaio has run 13 crime and immigration sweeps - sending as many as 200 deputies and volunteer posse members into a designated locale to set up a mobile command post and seek out traffic violators, people wanted on criminal warrants and others.
He launched one sweep just a day after his federal immigration arrest powers were taken away.
Arpaio used state immigration laws to enforce his two latest sweeps, but now says he has the inherent power to enforce federal immigration law. He recently called a press conference to announce plans to train all 881 of his deputies to crack down on illegal immigration.
Mayors of some cities have complained that they didn't want or need the crackdowns in their communities and accused Arpaio of targeting Hispanics on minor infractions, like having a broken headlight.
In April 2008, when Arpaio's deputies poured into the town of Guadalupe, then-Mayor Rebecca Jimenez challenged the basis of the patrols, squaring off with him as a TV camera rolled.
"You came under false pretenses," Jimenez said, gripping an Arpaio press release.
Arpaio denied the charge that his immigration efforts are more focused on skin color than on violations of law. He pointed out that his parents immigrated from Italy, that he was the target of slurs about his heritage when he was a kid, that his daughter-in-law is Hispanic.
He said critics call him and his deputies racists because they have no defense of illegal immigration.
"I just happen to be catching the people from Mexico because they are the ones we come across," he said.
Thomas P. Morrissey, a retired federal agent who has been a friend of Arpaio since the early 1990s and eats lunch with him once a month, said the sheriff is popular because he responds to the community's needs.
"He is doing the job that people want him to do," Morrissey said.
Clearly, Arpaio retains much support, even in seemingly unexpected places.
Hector Reyna, a self-employed welder who came here 25 years ago as an illegal immigrant and has since become a U.S. citizen, said Arpaio won his vote in 2008 because the sheriff busted drug dealers in his neighborhood. "He is the only man Hispanic criminals fear," Reyna said.
But Joe Delgado, a retired manufacturing worker who once favored Arpaio's tent jails, said he'd soured on Sheriff Joe because of his raids on businesses suspected of hiring illegal immigrants, leading some to move back to their home countries. "That bothers me, because they made my old neighborhood nice," Delgado said. "They really fixed it up."
Even supporters of his immigration efforts like state Sen. Russell Pearce, a former top deputy under Arpaio, acknowledge concern. "You always have to be worried," Pearce said. "If they are going to investigate whether you have crossed your T's and dotted your I's on every issue, I doubt there is anybody without fault."
Arpaio has easily won re-election, and his approval ratings held strong for years - with polls by Arizona State University saying he hovered around 80 percent in 2000 but dropped to 60 percent in late October. A more recent survey by the Behavior Research Center found Arpaio's approval rating dropped from 54 percent in late July 2008 to 39 percent in January.
In any case, Arpaio plans to run for a sixth term in 2012.
"Even though his support has declined, I believe he would be considered a favorite, but it depends on what the opposition comes up with," said ASU pollster Bruce Merrill. So far, Democrats haven't even come up with a candidate to oppose the Republican sheriff.
Arpaio sees his removal from office as a matter solely up to the voters and invokes his favorite tune - "My Way," the Frank Sinatra version - to explain his philosophy on his future.
"'My Way' is my way, because the people want me to do it that way," Arpaio said. "Sometimes, I'll try to change the lyrics when I try to sing it, 'I took the blows and did it your way.' Instead of mine, I'll say your."
The federal grand jury may ultimately decide whether it's Arpaio's way or the highway.
Asked directly if it wouldn't be easier just to retire, Arpaio pondered the subject for a moment. He took a deep breath and sighed. Once out of office, he wouldn't get many calls from reporters, and the public wouldn't care about him anymore.
"Everybody is going to forget Sheriff Joe," Arpaio said. "So what's left? What is left that motivates me to continue on, and there's only one thing: The people want me. I feel very good when I walk down the street. People come up and say, 'Thank you.'"