“It ain’t right,” the man with the soft, desert cowboy drawl says slowly into the phone. “These folks are human beings and he treats ‘em like swine. Well, actually, Joe treats everyone who ain’t white and rich like swine.”
”Here in Maricopa County, he thinks it’s a crime to be poor or have brown skin and mebbe a ‘z’ in your name.”
The “he” is Joe Arpaio and the cowboy drawl belongs to one of his deputies, a man who is growing increasingly appalled by the Maricopa (Arizona) County sheriff’s sometimes violent, frequently disgusting and generally mortifying war on anyone suspected of being Mexican.
“I went into law enforcement to protect people and catch criminals,” the deputy speaking to me on the phone from Phoenix continues. “Joe went into it ‘cause he’s a sadistic S-O-B.”
The man who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and runs the nation’s fourth largest sheriff’s office may also be America’s meanest degenerate. He probably should be charged with civil rights law violations – federal crimes – instead of being allowed to walk around loose wearing a badge and a gun.
150 Foot Prison Tents
The story of Jailin’ Joe is well known.
He boasts of housing prisoners outdoors in tents during Arizona summers where temperatures hit 150’ in top bunks inside the flimsy canvas shelters; when he opened his Tent City, Arpaio moved an entire floor of prisoners housed adequately in the main jail into the tents to give the news media a photo op. Arpaio shrugs off the inhuman and inhumane treatment by saying American soldiers in Iraq live in similar conditions. Actually, GI’s don’t live that way except on overnight patrols; generally, they are housed in air conditioned trailers and barracks but Arpaio never seems to let truth or reality get in his way.
He proudly chain-marches 700 prisoners through the streets of Phoenix wearing only underwear and flip-flops in an exercise explicitly designed solely to humiliate inmates. "It's a security issue," Arpaio rationalizes the inmates near-nudity, an argument as flimsy as the prisoner’s flip-flops. "If you let them wear their clothes, they can conceal fake keys.”
Arpaio sends midnight SWAT raids to wrong addresses and a SWAT loonie once forced a pet dog back into a burning house that caught fire during one such botched foray. The dog died a horrid death, his cries of pain audible for at least a block. Arpaio shrugs off the incident with a sort of “shit happens” dismissal.
He even borrows a page from pre-civil rights era Southern prisons, pressing chain gangs to work on county projects. Not content with limiting the gangs to hapless male prisoners, Arpaio also empresses chain gangs of female and juvenile prisoners to “volunteer” for chain gang duty in scenes that must look as if they come straight out of Cool Hand Luke. Or Guantanamo.
For a while, Arpaio webcast a prisoner intake center, showing legally innocent people being frog-marched in handcuffs into detention cells. Fortunately, a Federal court shut down what Arpaio called “Jail Cam,” slapping the sheriff whose argument ran that the webcast is a deterrent by chiding “… we fail to see how turning (innocent) pre-trial detainees into the unwilling objects of the latest reality show serves any legitimate goal. As the Supreme Court has recognized, ‘undefinednmates … are not like animals in a zoo to be filmed and photographed at will by the public ...’”
His reputation is so bad and far-flung that an Icelandic court refused to extradite two people wanted in Maricopa County after hearing evidence about Arpaio’s jail and his treatment of prisoners.
Although Arpaio has been re-elected numerous times since 1992, the tide may be turning against him.
On Saturday, thousands of people marched seven miles through broiling Phoenix streets protesting Arpaio’s reign of terror and his one man battle against Hispanics and illegal immigrants.
Salvador Reza, who helped organize the Walk for Respect, says he wants Pres. Obama or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano take away Arpaio's authority to enforce immigration laws, which he got through an agreement with the federal government during George Bush’s own Reign of Terror on the American people.
"In his hands, it's empowering someone with no regard for civil rights, no regard for human rights, no regard for humanity," Reza says. The White House referred questions about Arpaio’s authority to enforce immigration laws to DHS.
Moreover, a small but growing number of Arpaio’s deputies are beginning to agree, and some are going public. One notes that the sheriff has a history of abusing his power, beginning long before he became Maricopa County sheriff.
“My old man knew Joe years back,” one such disgruntled deputy told me, “when they were in the Army together in France. To Arpaio, a good Saturday night was getting drunk and beating the shit out of Algerians or queers or anybody different. It was a great night if he could send one or two of them to the hospital.”
Arpaio was a military policeman at the time.
Another officer tells me Arpaio terrorizes his own staff of deputies. Like others on the sheriff’s force interviewed for this story over the past two weeks, he asks that his name not be used out of fear of reprisals.
“When (Arpaio) was given the go-ahead by the feds to round up illegals,” the deputy states, “we all thought it was a fairly straight-forward law enforcement assignment. We’d arrest them and turn illegals over to ICE for processing and deporting or whatever.
“But the sheriff had his own ideas,” he continues. “He saw a chance to make a big splash that’d give his own political career a push.
As public pressure and scrutiny on Arpaio has mounted, he’s reportedly reacted the way many bullies do: He’s lashing out at the people closest to him.
Some deputy’s say when a small group of officers went to him protesting the way he was treating suspected illegal aliens, he assigned them to what is some call the “vomit patrol” – either cleaning up the jail’s drunk tank in the morning or assigned to patrolling areas that have a high number of drunk-and-disorderly 911 calls. Or he’d assign unhappy officers to chain gang duty, guarding prisoners in the hot Arizona sun with no respite from blistering heat.
“Joe’s worse than a mean drunk,” I was told by an officer. “He’s petty, angry and vindictive.”
But no one ever complained to him again.
Instead, often one at a time and with a good deal of hesitation and reluctance, they slowly seek out journalists and websites willing to listen to their story. Not all deputies are as cooperative; more than a few told me to f*ck off when I got them on the phone; one threatened me with death if I ever step foot in Maricopa County and a second told me “the damn wetbacks get what they deserve” before slamming down the phone.
Still, one willing deputy with a conscience told me, “I was contacted by a web site looking for the ‘inside scoop’ on Arpaio. It took me a month, maybe longer, to finally speak with somebody from there. Loyalty is a big deal in policing. You have to be able to count on the guy next to you. But my wife finally convinced me if I don’t speak out I’m as bad as Arpaio.”
The officer pauses and I hear his short, quick breaths coming down the phone line, a sign of somebody who’s struggling with an intense, internal tug or war over what he is doing.
“What the sheriff is doing is wrong,” he finally admits. “Mexican haters and racists love him but he ought to be voted out of office. He’s a disgrace to the department.”
A Costly Disgrace
Joe Arpaio is a disgrace alright and he’s a costly one.
So far, Maricopa County paid out more than $50 million to settle lawsuits filed by people who crossed his path and were made sick, crippled, hurt or died as a result. In fact, there are so many lawsuits the county’s liability insurance carrier upped the deductible fivefold, to $5 million per action. Yet many of the suits were easily avoided: One diabetic prisoner died in custody after Arpaio’s jailers denied the woman access to her prescribed insulin.
Part of the problem is that Arpaio tolerates violence by his officers against prisoners; in fact, one deputy with whom I spoke says he actively encourages it. He told me, “If you don’t rough up prisoners, Arpaio doesn’t think you’re doing your job.
“And we (the sheriff’s department) seem to attract a lot of violent officers,” he adds ruefully.
As a result, the list of victims is sickeningly endless:
- Charles Agster, a 33-year-old mentally handicapped man, died in the county jail three days after being forced by sheriff's officers into a restraint chair and placed in a “spit hood” when he suffered a seizure. He was declared brain dead three days later and a jury awarded his parents $9-million.
- Scott Norberg, a former Brigham Young University football player, died after detention officers shocked him several times with a stun-gun. According Amnesty International, Norberg was already handcuffed and face down when officers dragged him from his cell and placed him in a restraint chair with a towel covering his face for the electrocution. After Norberg's corpse was discovered, deputies accused Norberg of attacking them, overlooking the fact that he was handcuffed at the time. The county settled a lawsuit for $8.25 million.
- Brian Crenshaw, a legally blind and mentally disabled inmate, suffered fatal injuries while being held in Maricopa County Jail. Crenshaw's family filed a lawsuit which resulted in a $2 million award. As in the Norberg case, Arpaio's office was accused of destroying evidence.
- Richard Post was a parapalegic inmate arrested for possessing marijuana. He was placed in a restraint chair by guards and his neck was broken in the process. The event, caught on video, shows guards smiling and laughing while Post is being injured, which cost him the use of his arms. The now-qualrapelegic Post settled for $800,000.
- Jeremy Flanders, an inmate at Tent City, was attacked with rebar tent stakes which were not concreted into the ground. Although these stakes had been used as weapons in a previous riot at the facility, Arpaio chose not to secure them properly. During the trial, the plaintiff argued successfully the sheriff and his deputies knew that prisoners used rebar as weapons and did nothing to prevent it. Flanders suffered permanent brain damage as a result of the attack. He was awarded $635,532, of which Arpaio was held personally responsible for 35%.
Many Bad Apples
These are not isolated incidents of “a few bad apples.”
Amber Spencer, nine months pregnant with a healthy baby, complained of abdominal pains and was denied medical attention for two hours. By the time she was taken to the hospital, her baby was stillborn.
Jose Rodriguez died in his cell in a pool of his own vomit, ignored by guards despite desperate calls for help from fellow inmates.
Phil Wilson was serving a two month sentence for a non-violent crime and was killed after an attack by a racist group as deputies stood by and watched. Clint Yarborough suffocated in a restraint chair and the county supervised approved a settlement of more than $1-million.
Months before Thomas Bruce Cooley, 44, was found hanging by the bed sheets in his jail cell, a federal inspector had warned Arpaio that the jail psych ward was a suicide waiting to happen. Three more inmates died the same way as Cooley while in Arpaio's custody: Kevin Holschlag, Michael Sanderson, and Juan Vasquez.
Much of the department is as rotten as its sheriff and the Maricopa County court files are stuffed full of literally hundreds of similar cases involving sheriff office abuse.
As a result, the Justice Dept. is now conducting an intense investigation of Arpaio and his department. The DoJ refuses comment but Arpaio claims the enquiry is politically motivated.
The real question is whether residents will continue to support their local sheriff or vote him out of office in the next election. Given the county’s political and racial make-up, and Arpaio’s unending stream of re-elections, a defeat at the polls seems unlikely although an emerging coalition of Hispanic, civil rights, civil liberties and other activist groups may have a chance of stopping him.
Law in the Wild West has always been harsh and un-empered by any real notion of justice. After all, we’re talking about a region of the country where a cowpoke was fined $25 recently for a riding horse through town while drunk. But Joe Arpaio seems to feel he’s a sheriff, judge, jury and executioner all unto himself and follows his own version of “the law.”
It might be what some white residents of Maricopa County want but it’s not what justice in the United States is about. I'd call Joe Arpaio a pig but that would insult millions of noble swine everywhere.