Article — From the April 2001 issue

Star of Justice

On the job with America’s Toughest Sheriff

( 2 of 9 )

He is a loving husband, proud father, idealist, megalomaniac, liar, and bully. His nose is purple, his neck is red, arid he has the charm of Archie Bunker. A cheerful, garrulous man who enjoys watching executions and often doesn’t know where he is or why he is there. Some call him a murderer. Some call him insane. Amnesty International calls him a human-rights violator. Robert Mitchum’s son wrote a screenplay about him. He is the most popular politician in the state of Arizona, and, with an 85 percent approval rating, perhaps the most popular in the history of the state. He is so popular that, even though his most recent election campaign was almost completely passive, he still took 67 percent of the vote. Approaching his eighth decade, he looks younger than he is. He’s squat and robust, still has a head full of hair, and the hair contains more black than gray. He has a belligerent look and a hearty manner. His small eyes often seem unfocused and confused, and sometimes gleam with childish spite.

Joe Arpaio [pronounced Ar-pie-oh] was born in 1932 in Springfield, Massachusetts. His parents came from Naples, and he still proudly calls himself an Italian, His mother died while giving birth to him, and he spent much of his childhood being shunted between three different families. These are chapters of his life he recounts without bitterness, just part of his story. As a child, he always wanted to be a cop. When he graduated from high school, he enlisted in the army. He claims to be a Korean War veteran, but in fact he spent the war in France. When he was discharged, he joined the metropolitan police in Washington, D.C. He met his wife, Ava, and they have now been married for forty-five years. They spent some time in Las Vegas, where he was on the force. Then he spent more than two decades with the Drug Enforcement Administration, working in Chicago, Turkey, and Mexico, and, finally, serving four years as head of the DEA in Arizona before retiring.

He was elected sheriff of Maricopa County in 1993. He’d spent the ten years since his retirement running a travel agency with his wife, selling, or trying to sell, trips to outer space, among other vacations. But he missed the limelight.

The county sheriff at the time was Tom Agnos, a capable if unremarkable cop who was popular enough until somebody went into a Buddhist temple in Phoenix and shot some people to death. Agnos arrested a bunch of kids and charged them with murder. The resulting lawsuit for wrongful arrest cost the county $2.8 million and Agnos his job.

Arpaio replaced him.

In a city where crime and development are growing together, Arpaio had the answers that the frightened people wanted to hear. He declared war on crime and billed himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He assembled a “sheriffs posse” staffed entirely by volunteers. He declared that criminals would no longer be released just because of overcrowding in the county jails; instead he used Korean War army tents to create the Tent City Jail, located on the outskirts of Phoenix. In this part of Arizona, the summer temperatures can reach more than 120 degrees.

The county’s eight jails are now home to more than 7,400 inmates, double the number there were before Arpaio became sheriff. Arpaio announced that the inmates would not be allowed coffee, cigarettes, or pornography. The only TV available would be broadcasts of Newt Gingrich and C-Span. The inmates would be forced to wear pink underwear. They would be fed green bologna, for which they would be charged; he brags that the meals fed to his prisoners are the cheapest in America’s penal system, costing Maricopa County only 30 cents a meal. Inmates, both men and women, would be put on chain gangs and forced to dig graves. (He didn’t mention that the chain gangs are voluntary and that the inmates had already been used to dig graves.) Arpaio’s message was straightforward: jail should be about punishment, and the punishment should be so unpleasant that no one who experienced it would ever want to go through it again.

The public loved this. Finally, someone was letting criminals know that it was a war, and criminals were the enemy. Arpaio attained a level of celebrity matched by only one other resident of Maricopa County—Alice Cooper: And their status is similar; Arpaio is treated not as a politician but as a rock star. Wherever he goes, people point at him, come up to him, want to shake hands with him. He has appeared on dozens of talk shows, including Donahue and Politically Incorrect. He has his own local radio show.

Nick Hentoff is a lawyer who, in true Arizona style, is a member of both the National Rifle Association and the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1993 he was representing indigent inmates of the county jails, and he began noticing similarities in their accounts of torture by Arpaio’s guards. He filed suit on behalf of several such inmates, including Richard Post. When the case load became too much for him, he brought in another attorney, Joel Robbins. The lawsuits alleged that Arpaio created and nurtured a climate that encouraged the guards to abuse inmates.

The lawyers had a difficult task ahead of them. Arpaio’s popularity is like the summer heat in Arizona—it’s so relentless, so overwhelming, that it’s hard to imagine challenging it. When I told people what had happened to Richard Post, the most common response was, “Well, what had he done?” If Arpaio’s guards had tortured a paraplegic, he must have done something to deserve it. If other inmates were choked or beaten to death, it must have been their own fault. Criminals shouldn’t be mollycoddled. No one wanted to hear that 70 percent of those in jail hadn’t been convicted of anything. They were awaiting trial, didn’t have the money to make bail, and were presumed innocent.

The lawsuits started coming down, nearly a thousand of them, and many are still pending. So far, the total bill for jury awards and settlements is approximately $15 million. It would almost certainly be a few million more if Richard Post had taken his lawsuit to trial. Instead, just wanting it to be over, he accepted a settlement of $800,000.

The public read about it. And Arpaio’s popularity remained intact. The money awarded in damages, people thought, was a worthwhile cost in the war on crime. In 1996 the federal government started an investigation. Arpaio was defiant, and so was his public.

In 1999, Arpaio’s chief deputy, David Hendershott, was allowed to retire on full pension—and then was immediately hired again, at full salary, and allowed to keep the pension. It caused a scandal, but Arpaio’s popularity remained intact. If there was corruption in his office, well, at least we still had him to lead the war on crime.

Arpaio’s publicity-seeking continued. Reporters nicknamed his news conferences “Joe Shows.” He announced that there would be a “pet posse” to target people who abused animals, that he would use vacant jail cells to house dogs, and that more money would be spent on feeding police dogs than on feeding the inmates, because the dogs deserved better. He announced that inmates who assaulted guards would be fed only bread and water (the bread was fortified), while he was spending $70,000 on an armored car. When someone left a metal sculpture of a spider on his lawn, he claimed it was a threat on his life, retaliation for telling some of his fans on the Internet to take his picture off their site (the site also featured pictures of Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold). How did Arpaio make this connection? “It was a website. And spiders live in webs, don’t they?” he asked.

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