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On the job with America’s Toughest Sheriff

You are a citizen of the county protected by America’s Toughest Sheriff.

Your name is Richard Post. You’re paraplegic, but you’ve made the best of what you have. Your legs are useless, but your arms are powerful. At age thirty-five, you’ve bought a home, raised a kid, and you’re studying for a college degree. You have a life. Then, in one night, most of it is taken away from you.

It happens ten years after the car accident that put you in the wheelchair. It’s the night of St. Patrick’s Day, 1996, and you’re at home in Phoenix, Arizona, watching Mike Tyson destroy Frank Bruno, the crystal-chinned English heavy-weight. After the fight, you feel like going out. So you head for an Irish pub named O’Connor’s.

The atmosphere is cordial, and in the space of an hour you have two drinks. There’s a folkie providing live music. As he finishes a song, you wheel yourself over to him and tell him the results of the fight. He announces it, expecting that the Irish-American patrons will be pleased to hear that Bruno lost. Some people cheer and some people boo.

You hang out for a while, chat with some people. An older guy comes up to you and says, “Why don’t you get the hell out of here?’”

You don’t understand what his problem is. “Why, did you bet on the Englishman?” you ask.

“I’m calling the police,” he tells you and walks away.

You think he’s kidding, so you don’t worry. But he means it. His name is James O’Connor, and he owns the pub. He calls the cops, then comes back and tells you they’re on their way.

You still don’t get it. But if the cops really are coming, you don’t want them to stop you on the road, since you’ve been drinking. So you decide to wait for them and talk to them in the bar.

The cops who arrive are named Jeffrey Howell and James Ray. In their report, they will claim that the owner of the bar said that you were drinking heavily and that you called him “a Protestant and an Englishman.” They will describe you as “extremely intoxicated.” But the owner will deny this and will insist that you weren’t drunk. He will claim that he called the cops because you were bothering his customers. He has been drinking as well.

The cops tell you to take a taxi home or they’ll take you to jail. You refuse, and say you’ll just roll yourself home in your wheelchair. The cops arrest you. They will say later that you challenged them to arrest you. You will say that you wouldn’t do such a thing, knowing that you were carrying some pot in your backpack. They search you and find the pot, all 1.1 grams of it. They take you to the Madison Street Jail, in downtown Phoenix.

There’s a videotape of you being searched and booked into jail. On the tape, you seem lucid and co-operative, not giving the jailers any attitude at all. The tape shows you explaining to them that the urine bag attached to your ankle is full. Unless you empty the bag and get an internal catheter, you won’t be able to piss. And you need to.

“This is a jail, not a hospital,” you’re told.

You get to see a nurse, and you tell her you have special needs. “Do you have a MedicAlert bracelet?” she asks you.

“I’m in a wheelchair,” you tell her.

Your bladder hurts, and you’re scared. Paraplegics are very susceptible to kidney disease caused by unsanitary and infrequent urination. As you’re rolled to your cell, a jailer says, “There’s a big difference between what you need and what you get in here. Don’t be a baby.”

They leave you in the cell. You keep trying to get their attention, to try to explain that you need a catheter, but they just tell you to shut up. You bang on the cell door for a while, but nothing happens.

You decide to empty your urine bag, and then try to make yourself piss by manipulating your abdomen with your hands. But you can’t reach the toilet. You accidentally knock a roll of toilet paper into the bowl, and that gives you an idea.

You start flushing the toilet. You do it again and again. It fills with water.

A guard tells you he’ll turn off the water unless you stop. You don’t stop. You tell them again that you need a catheter. Water spills out of the toilet, over the floor, out into the hall.

Sergeant Steve Kenner responds. But he doesn’t bring you a catheter. He has you put in a restraint chair instead. You tell him you need a pad to sit on or you’ll develop sores that might need surgery. “Too bad,” he tells you. The nurse takes a look and says you need a pad. Kenner says they have to clean up the water first because it’s a safety hazard. They could just move the restraint chair away from the water, but they don’t.

They leave you like that for two hours. When they finally put the pad in place, Kenner sparks a stun gun close to your head, then hands it to his partner. “Hit that fucker if he moves,” he tells his partner.

They loosen the straps a little, shove the pad halfway under your buttocks. Then Kenner pulls the straps so tight that they compress your spine.

They leave you like that for six hours. In that time, your anus becomes ulcerated. You’re bedridden for four months. Doctors consider giving you a temporary colostomy. You have to drop out of college. You lose feeling in your right arm. It withers and becomes thin. You can’t raise it above your shoulder. You can’t write with it. And there is a numbness in your left hand.

A doctor tells you he must operate on your neck. He asks you how the damage happened. You tell him, and he changes his mind. He says he knows there’s going to be litigation, and he wants nothing to do with it.

You plead with him. “All I want is for you to fix me.” You tell him you don’t want him to testify on your behalf. He’s apologetic but firm. He wants nothing to do with you.

You were luckier than many. You left the jail alive.

You are a citizen of the county protected by America’s Toughest Sheriff.

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.

To understand Joe Arpaio, you have to understand Phoenix. In most American cities in most American states, it would be impossible for him to get elected and remain in power. Even a hundred miles down the highway, in Tucson, it would be impossible. But this is not Tucson. This is the desert metropolis that is devouring Arizona’s Valley of the Sun.

It is the seventh-largest municipality in America, an apocalyptic, science-fiction cityscape of freeways and broad, empty streets under a cruel sun. There are no store-lined streets, only strip malls. Many central neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks, because nobody can walk anywhere. A “right-to-work” state, which means workers have no right to job security or benefits. A place where gangs and violence are out of control, and those who aren’t convicted felons can legally wander public places with a gun dangling from their belt, just like they could a century ago. A place that is considered the best-run city in America by Governing magazine.

Phoenix has always been a hustle, a scam, a get-rich-quick scheme. Arpaio is not anomalous. He is a proud bearer of the city’s heritage. Phoenix was founded by a drunk and an opium addict. Jack Swilling was also an army scout, army deserter, teamster, farmer, prospector, speculator—anything he thought would make him a fast buck. Born in South Carolina in 1830, Swilling was thirty-seven when he found himself passing through the valley. Few settlers lived here, but Swilling could find a potential hustle anywhere, and a new one occurred to him when he saw the remains of the irrigation canals left behind by the Hohokam Indians when they disappeared 400 years earlier. He set up the Swilling Irrigating and Canal Company, hired sixteen employees, had them clean some of the canals, and started growing hay to sell to nearby Fort McDowell.

Soon other people came to the valley. By 1870 there were 235 residents. A year later, the valley separated from Yavapai County. John T. Alsap came down from Prescott to be our first mayor. Interested parties fought over where to locate the county seat. There was bribery, fraud, intimidation, and, in the end, a town site was prepared on Central and Washington.

Welcome to Phoenix, best-run city in America.

No one knows who named the town “Phoenix.” We do know that it wasn’t Swilling. He carried on drinking and brawling, and ended up in prison for a robbery that there’s little evidence he committed. In 1880, two years after his death, Phoenix had a population of 1,708. Back then, chain gangs of prisoners were used to clean the streets, which were made from beer bottles-just like today, only now we have concrete. By the turn of the century the population stood at 5,544. The first cars arrived, and people suffering from tuberculosis came to the valley in the hopes of a longer life. But they had to have money, in 1903, in an attempt to drive out poor people with TB, tents were banned within the city limits. Tent cities soon encircled Phoenix.

By 1930, Phoenix was the largest city in the state—the second largest in the Southwest—with a population of 48,118. The population reached 65,414 only a decade later, and by 1955 it had more than doubled, to 156,000. Five years later the city boasted 439,170. At century’s end, an Arizona Republic poll found that more than half of the city’s 1,276,510 residents would leave right away if they could.

In the collective mind of the rest of the country, Phoenix is a retirement community, where residents spend hot and sleepy days playing golf. In reality, this is a city of the very young, a place not of cactus and sand but of asphalt and glass. In the cafes and bars of central Phoenix, it’s hard to find a native of the city. Everybody is from someplace else, and nobody plans to stay. Everybody wants to make some money and then move on. But not everybody manages to make money. Phoenix is a boomtown where nearly a quarter of the children live in poverty.

If there’s anyone thing that distinguishes Phoenix, it’s that the city is still becoming. There may be arguments as to what it’s becoming, but no one can reasonably doubt that the place is still giving birth to itself. Everything here is so stark, so obvious; everyone is on the make, everything is a hustle, everyone wants something from someone else. This is true of every place, but in Phoenix it’s undisguised. The city lacks the sophistication even to attempt to conceal its hungers and lusts.

An explanation of what went wrong with Phoenix can be found, appropriately enough, in the opening scenes of a classic horror movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, released forty years ago, begins with a bird’s-eye view of Phoenix. The city was instantly recognizable—Camelback Mountain, the downtown skyline . . .

And it’s still instantly recognizable. When you freeze the frame and look closely, it’s hard to see any difference. Forty years of growth, and no change in the skyline?

Normally, development is preceded by planning. Not here. We’ve just thrown buildings up wherever we thought they were needed. We’ve built out, instead of up. To get from one place to another, instead of taking elevators and walking, you have to drive. And everything is farther than it seems. You realize this when you decide to walk to any place you think is nearby, a handy place you drive to every day. What seemed like a stroll turns out to be a hike. The Sonoran desert is vanishing at a rate so fast it sometimes seems as if the developers have invented a bomb that throws up ugly buildings wherever it explodes. If I let two months go by without driving southeast to Tucson on Interstate 10, on my next trip I feel as though I’m driving an unfamiliar route, so much desert has been replaced by so much new development. The city is consuming the desert at one acre per hour. Few of us object to this. And although it’s painful to admit, some of us are excited by the sheer spectacle of the carnage. I can’t help it.

The growth, the maniacal expansion, has nothing to do with the development of community. In spite of the boom, the community has not grown wealthier. Instead, people have come here and grown wealthy. One of the factors that make the valley attractive to big business is the low wages. Poor neighborhoods, barrios, reservations, are ignored, left to themselves, and the rest of us hear about them only when the constantly simmering violence reaches the boiling point and spills out into other areas.

As business booms, so does thug life. Industry is flourishing, and so are gangs. Motorola. Honeywell. Bank One Ballpark. U-Haul. The Park South Crips. Victoria Varrio Locos. Las Cuatros Milpas, Between 1990 and 1994, gang-related homicide increased by 800 percent; Phoenix now has more than 300 gangs.

As the new century begins, the Arizona Republic reports that six-shooters have been replaced with cell phones. Although in keeping with the paper’s boosterism, this claim is simply not true. The reality is that violence has kept pace with development. Four years ago, when a county supervisor supported the public bankrolling of the Bank One Ballpak without letting the public vote on it, someone shot her in the ass.’

This is Joe Arpaio’s kingdom.

Republican presidential candidate, a Democratic U.S. attorney, the governor of Arizona, and a former hit man for the mob all have something in common: they fear him.

It is October 1997. Senator John McCain is a local institution. He will later run for president and seduce the media with his blunt, tell-it-like-it-is persona. He survived years of torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and there are many who consider him a hero. But tonight he’s dealing with Joe Arpaio, and John McCain is nervous.

It’s a private party at a house in Scottsdale, a wealthy suburb just outside of Phoenix. It costs $100 dollars to attend this fund-raiser for Joe Arpaio. Why he’s raising funds right now is not something he’s willing to talk about; the next election for sheriff is three years away. But everyone knows he’s thinking about running for governor. You’d have to be missing a chromosome not to know—for weeks, he hasn’t been able to get through an interview without mentioning what a marvelous governor he’d be.

Jane Hull knows it, too. That’s why she’s here tonight. She’s the sitting governor—she inherited the job a few months ago when her predecessor, Fife Symington, was convicted on six counts of fraud. If Arpaio runs against her, she doesn’t stand a chance.

The party is outdoors. The winter night is warmer than a summer night in many other states. There’s a raised stage, with a public-address system, and the large garden is crowded with tables. There are about two hundred people present, all of them white. Although the party is private, a CNN crew has been invited by Arpaio, and a few reporters have gained entry by forking over the admission fee.

The event is hosted by two women who look like they’re in an amateur theater’s production of Anne of Green Gables. One of them kicks off the proceedings by declaring, “I have not met a single person who did not love Sheriff Joe.” Saying this, she sets the tone for the entire evening. The name “Arpaio” is rarely mentioned. He’s “Sheriff Joe,” a cartoon character, the Tasmanian Devil of law enforcement.

When the Stepford Hostesseshave finished simpering, John McCain gets his turn. When he runs for president, he will be doomed in Arizona if he doesn’t have Arpaio’s endorsement. So he recites the words: “This is a safer county since we have been blessed with Sheriff Joe.”

He is either offensively ignorant or simply lying.

The emcee is Ron Masak, an actor who plays a sheriff on TV. He says he’d like to play Arpaio. He declares that Arpaio is “a hell of a man . . . who went into Tent Village alone and unarmed—and went to sleep!” The audience laughs and applauds. Arpaio nods and smiles modestly. Masak neglected to mention the reporter Arpaio brought along to mythologize his night of peril, or the SWAT team and sharp-shooter he had stationed nearby. Masak says that although Arpaio has been criticized for the chain gangs, what people don’t know is that the inmates volunteer for them. He doesn’t explain that Arpaio himself hid this fact.

Governor Jane Hull takes the stage, and she seems even more nervous than McCain. “Sheriff Joe is a great innovator,” she says. “People with new ideas are always criticized at first . . . My favorite innovation is the pink underwear.” She doesn’t say how this improved the standard of law and order in Maricopa County. She asks Arpaio to come onstage; she wants to make a donation to his campaign fund. “It’s for Sheriff Joe Arpaio in the year 2000,” she says pointedly. Arpaio grins at her. “Well,” he says. “You’re doing a good job . . . for now.”

Later, there’s a set from a country band, Tex Hill and the Rhinestone Rangers. Tex, the lead singer, is in the Sheriff’s posse. The bassist says his favorite thing about Arpaio’s gulag is “girls in chains.” Tex invites Arpaio onstage. “I wrote a song about Sheriff Joe,” he says. Arpaio stands there, hands folded,smiling humbly as Tex serenades him. “Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Sheriff Joe Arpaio/He’s the toughest sheriff in the West/Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Sheriff Joe Arpaio/He wears the star of justice on his chest … “

Six days later, it is Halloween, and another political production is under way.

Janet Napolitano represented Anita Hill. Her reputation is that of a pugnacious, spirited lawyer who knows the difference between right and wrong. But today she’s not dealing with Clarence Thomas. She’s dealing with Joe Arpaio. And Janet Napolitano is nervous. This is her last day as U.S. attorney. She, too, is thinking of running for governor. And to have a chance of success, she needs Arpaio’s endorsement. So they’re having a joint news conference.

The federal government has been investigating reports of brutality in his jails. Today it has filed a lawsuit over it, but it has agreed to drop the lawsuit in six months if Arpaio implements certain changes to use-of-force policy in the jails. Essentially, the feds have found Arpaio guilty and have put him on probation. Not that you’d know it from the news conference.

One of the reasons the conference has been called is to address the contents of a report on the use of force in the jails, compiled by George E. Sullivan, a corrections consultant, who was chosen “to serve as a mutually-agreeable expert consultant for the United States and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office [MCSO] in the United States’ ongoing investigation into certain aspects of conditions of confinement in the Maricopa County Jails.”

In speeches that border on the surreal, both Napolitano and Arpaio declare that the report has exonerated him. When the subject of the lawsuit is raised, Napolitano dismisses it as “a technicality.”

When a reporter asks Napolitano whether she, believes the allegations against Arpaio, she says, “I’m not going to comment on the allegations.” When another reporter suggests that her embrace of Arpaio might be motivated by her gubernatorial aspirations, she answers, “People can be cynical.”

Arpaio briefly talks about how he’s “famous all over the world,” then says he doesn’t consider the federal government’s investigation to be an investigation; it’s a “management structure.” He says his critics pick on him because of personal agendas. Although he has agreed to implement the changes recommended by the feds, at the same time he says that nothing will change. “The chain gangs stay. The tents stay. The pink underwear stays. All my programs stay.”

As I walk out of that conference, logic be damned, I almost believe that he has been exonerated. His performance, and Napolitano’s, have been that brazen. At that point I haven’t seen the report, which hasn’t been made available to the public.

It takes me another two months to obtain the report. On the day that I get it, I go to a bar, get a beer, and sit down at a table with the report and a highlighter. I’m planning to mark any passages that condemn Arpaio. It doesn’t take long for me to abandon that idea—or else I’d have to highlight at least three quarters of the fifty-page document. Now that the report is in the hands of people like me, Arpaio changes his story. Instead of claiming exoneration, he now says that the report is based on “innuendo.” Here are some of Sullivan’s “innuendos”:

• [Inmates entering Intake] have probably been subjected to varieties of force—stun guns, pepper spray, billy clubs, hog-tying, fists, etc. . . .
• [A]ll OC Pepper Spray/Foam devices (should) be immediately REMOVED from all staff and any further use be strictly prohibited . . .
• There is also evidence which can be read to reveal the use of Stun Guns and OC Pepper Spray/Foam after restraint had been achieved, for no apparent justifiable reason . . .
• I would not have one of these Restraint Chairs on the property. I cannot suggest any justifiable value to be derived from the Restraint Chair . . .
• The Inmate Grievance System is dysfunctional . . .
• [S]taffing was below levels needed for safety and humane operations of the jails . . .
• [The in take facility is]a very unmanageable,dangerous environment . . .
• Use of Force was unprovoked, unnecessary,and, consequently, unjustified and excessive.

Sullivan dryly remarks, “It is not surprising that litigation was invited and that the image of the MCSO became negative in some professional circles.”

McCain groveled. Napolitano lied. It didn’t do either of them any good. Napolitano ended up running for attorney general. She won, but Arpaio endorsed her opponent, a Republican. McCain asked Arpaio to endorse his presidential campaign, but Arpaio went with Bush. Jane Hull is still governor; Arpaio called a news conference to announce that he wasn’t going to run. At least not yet.

His name is Salvatore Gravano, but he is known as Sammy the Bull, and since moving to Phoenix he has turned out to have a lot in common with Joe Arpaio. Like Arpaio, he has become a celebrity. Like Arpaio, he has had an autobiography ghostwritten. Just as “Sheriff Joe” is a house-hold name, so is “Sammy the Bull.” He has killed at least nineteen people and says he does not regret it. Arpaio will not disclose how many have died in his custody, and he has expressed no regret.

Sammy the Bull was a hit man for the Mafia. He gets angry when people call him a serial killer, because he thinks serial killers are crazy, unlike him. He emphasizes that he killed only because it was his job. He turned stool pigeon and was instrumental in helping federal prosecutors convict John Gatti. He went into the witness-protection program, but he soon missed the limelight. So he came here and went public, hanging out in a coffeehouse and talking to anyone who wanted to talk to him. He soon amassed a following, mainly among goth kids and rwenty-somethings who think murder is cool. He sat in, the cafe, played chess, greeted his admirers, held court. He wore a black suit, even in the summer, and told stories of his Mafia days and the people he had killed. He signed copies of his book. When asked if he was afraid that the mob would come for him, he said no. They might kill him, but he’d be sure to take a couple of them with him.

Sammy the Bull seemed to have become a legitimate businessman. He had a construction company in Phoenix and a restaurant in Scottsdale, but at some point he decided to get involved in one of Phoenix’s booming industries: Ecstasy. Costing around $25 a hit, the drug is popular with the club kids who hang out at raves and the yuppies who hang out in the clubs of Tempe and Scottsdale. In February last year, Sammy the Bull, his wife, daughter, son, nephew, niece, and some friends were charged with, importing 100,000 doses of Ecstasy each month.

Since then, Sammy the Bull has been in the custody of Sheriff Joe. His bail has been set at $5 million, which he says he doesn’t have. All his assets were seized under racketeering laws. He lost his businesses, cars, a boat, jewelry, and guns. If he’s convicted on any criminal charge—and the evidence against him is so overwhelming that it’s difficult to imagine how he could not be—his plea agreement with the feds is void, and he can be prosecuted for the murders he was originally granted immunity from in exchange for his testimony against Gatti.

It’s the stuff of B movies or pulp fiction, and since Sammy will probably be Joe’s guest for quite a while it occurs to me that it might be interesting to see what they have to say about each other, maybe get them together to shoot the breeze. Sheriff Joe isn’t averse to the idea, but when I call Sammy the Bull’s lawyer he won’t consider the proposition.

The lawyer’s name is Larry Hammond. “Think about it,” he says. “My client is in the custody of a notoriously vindictive sheriff, and he may remain in his custody for some time. Until this trial is over, the only thing Sammy has to say about Joe Arpaio is that he has never met a sheriff he loved so much, and would like to kiss Arpaio right on the lips.”

Sammy the Bull isn’t afraid of the mob coming after him. But, along with John McCain and Janet Napolitano, he’s afraid to say anything that might antagonize Joe Arpaio.

Steve Benson is a cop and a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who for the past twenty years has worked for the Arizona Republic. When I call, he speaks slowly and thoughtfully, like a cop testifying in court. He tells me about a day in November 1996, when he watched a man be executed.

“He had invited me to witness his execution. Joe Arpaio was there, too. It was a very hard thing to watch, a man being put to death. As we were coming out of the death house, I was about twenty feet in front of Joe Arpaio. He recognized me, and shouted, ‘I’m glad you came to see what we do to murderers.’ He was swaggering, smiling, jocular …

“[In 1999], two police officers were killed in the line of duty. I went to their funerals, in uniform, to pay my respects. At one of the funerals, Arpaio was outside the church, in the parking lot. I went to shake hands with him. I said, ‘How are you?’ And he yelled, ‘Why do you always draw me so fat? I’m gonna sue you! I’ve lost weight .. .’

“He likes to think he’s a celebrity. I think perhaps he’s overcompensating. Why, despite his clownish attention-getting antics, do voters like him so much? Because he treats criminals the way his supporters would like to treat them. He humiliates them, feeds them crummy food. Not that some people don’t deserve to be in jail … but he capitalizes on their misfortune for political gain. All that matters to him is getting on comedy shows like Politically Incorrect. He’s convinced his supporters that he’s making a difference. People want to believe that, and he’s playing the role. And he’ll continue to do so, God help us.”

I ask Benson what he thinks of Arpaio’s impact as a law enforcer. “Well, since Joe Arpaio became sheriff, I have not been assaulted by a single metal spider … I want to thank Joe personally for that. I now feel safe in my bed at night.”

It is summer, 2000, and Joe Arpaio isn’t doing any campaigning. He doesn’t have to. His profile is as high as ever. He’s in the news for filming people being booked into the Madison Street Jail and broadcasting it live on the Internet ( includes live feed from four different cameras, a “shakedown slide show,” as well as links to buy Sheriff Joe’s videos and paraphernalia from the TV show Cops). The ACLU is arguing that this is an invasion of the inmates’ privacy, that Arpaio has no right to humiliate them publicly when they haven’t been convicted of anything. Arpaio’s position is a familiar one: he says that the fear of being humiliated will deter people from breaking the law. As the debate goes on, Arpaio’s name stays in the papers.

He doesn’t even need such publicity. All he really needs are the posters and placards on the streets telling the public to reelect Sheriff Arpaio. He doesn’t need his face on television or in the newspaper, because everyone knows his face already, and the mere mention of his name conjures it. There can be very few people in the city, of any social class, who don’t know what he looks like. While other politicians canvass support, Joe Arpaio can sit comfortably in his office knowing that all he need do in order to ensure victory is have his name on the ballot.

Joe Arpaio has a secret, and it is this: he is a fictional character. Of course, there is a sixty-eight-year- old man named Joe Arpaio who is be-ginning his third term as Maricopa County sheriff. But Joe Arpaio, America’s Toughest Sheriff, doesn’t exist.

The killings and beatings are real, for sure. Scott Norberg, beaten by fourteen guards, tortured with a stun gun while strapped in the restraint chair, then suffocated with a towel. James Johnson, shot dead by a deputy. Michael Sanderson, who hanged himself in custody. Jeremy Flanders, beaten into a coma by fellow inmates without supervision by guards. Annette Romo, a pregnant woman who lost her child after guards ignored her complaints of pain. Matthew Creamer, beaten so badly by two guards that there were blood blisters in his ears. Paul Van Noy, beaten and then left to lie in his own blood, piss, and shit for twenty-four hours … These are real. But America’s Toughest Sheriff is a fiction.

The debate over Arpaio has tended to assume that he is Rudy Giuliani moved west, a groundbreaking law enforcer who makes the city safer by using methods that horrify some but are considered by others to be justified by the results. But both sides are missing the point. Arpaio has reduced neither the crime rate nor the rate of recidivism in Phoenix. He has had no discernible effect whatsoever. He serves only to con the public into thinking that something is being done about crime. Phoenix is bucking the national trend: as crime falls nationwide, it increases here. Especially violent crime. In 1992, 136 people were murdered in the city; in 1999, 214. There were more murders, rapes, and car theft in 1999 than in the previous year. Arpaio’s defenders can argue that the population is increasing, so the statistics are misleading. But this is disingenuous. Most homicides—which have increased by nearly two thirds since 1992 while the population has grown only by a quarter—are not committed by opportunistic yuppies coming here to work dot-com jobs. The reality is indisputable: in Phoenix, your chance of getting killed is better since Arpaio took office.

Arpaio may be tough on inmate—to the point of allowing them to be beaten and killed on his watch-but he is not tough on crime. Like Ron Masak, who emceed his fund-raising party, he is not a real law enforcer. He is playing one. When he was a boy, he loved to read the Lone Ranger books and play at being the hero. He’s still doing it. And the voters are playing along.

It’s hard to blame them. In spite of all I’ve said, in spite of all I know about Joe Arpaio, I share one thing with the voters: I like him.

I consider it to be my biggest personal failing, my most shameful weakness of character, but there it is. I like him. I try not to like him, but the only way to accomplish that is to stay away from him. It is July 2000, and as I drive to his office to talk with him I’m bracing myself. Because I know that, after listening to him for a while, and knowing that nothing he says is true, knowing that he’s a fictional character, an actor playing a part, I’ll still feel like giving him my vote and joining his posse.

His office is on the nineteenth floor of the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Phoenix, a short walk from both the Bank One Ballpark and the Madison Street Jail, if it were possible to walk anywhere in this heat. A large window gives a panoramic view of the sprawling city over which he presides. He sits behind a huge desk with his name on it. He rises to greet me as his secretary escorts me in.

It’s been more than a year since I saw him last, and he’s changed remarkably. For most of his time in office, he was overweight and had an air of perpetual confusion. He could not remember people he’d met a few minutes previously and would often forget what he was talking about in the middle of a sentence. I once saw him at a conference of law enforcers who had assembled to discuss possible strategies for preventing children from becoming criminals. When I talked with him afterward, he didn’t know what the event was about; he thought it was a charitable function to raise money for disadvantaged children and that he was the celebrity guest.

Now, as he shakes my hand, his body is trim and his eyes are focused. He asks how I’m doing, then asks after my fiancée, whom he hasn’t seen in about two years. His speech is lucid. His delivery is like a comedian’s caricature of an Italian American, with lapses into a John Wayne drawl.

The temperature outside is over a hundred. My face is burning and I’m drenched in sweat. The air-conditioned luxury of Arpaio’s office makes the fiery vastness outside seem like a movie we’re watching through the window. Arpaio laughs heartily, tells me to sit down, get comfortable.

One thing that hasn’t changed: Joe Arpaio has never met a tape recorder he didn’t like. The interview was supposed to last for a half-hour. It lasts for more than two. When I switch off the machine, he continues to talk.

He tells stories of his days in Turkey. “They sent me over there all by myself, just me with a little gun … “ He talks of gun battles with drug dealers. “I was brazen. Maybe I didn’t use much sense like maybe I should have, these gun battles and how I reacted. But I survived.

“I don’t carry a gun today, and I don’t have bodyguards. Everybody says, ‘You have to have bodyguards.’ My staff get very angry because I won’t have anybody follow me around. I walk the streets. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. I don’t worry about it.”

I don’t mention that Sammy the Bull often said the same thing.

“I go into the tents, I slept in the tents. Everybody said, ‘They’re gonna kill you.’ I said, ’Nah, they’re humans like anybody else, don’t worry about it.’”

I know he’s lying, know it for a fact, but I can’t help it-he’s getting to me. I wish he were telling the truth.

“When I’m walking around, they all come up to me. Guys come up to me, they don’t look like white-shirt-type people. I think they’re gonna shoot me, but they come up to me and shake my hand. They say, ‘Hey, we love what you’re doin’.’ The working people, I’m talking about. The working people. Even people outta jail come up to me and say, ‘Hey, thank you, I just got outta your jail.’ It’s amazing.”

He’s only been warming up, and now he gets in his stride. “I still have faith in the people, the people I serve . . . The mayor, the governor, nobody knows them … I’m the guy. It makes me angry sometimes· when people go around accusing me of things, and I know I’m right. But I can’t get my point across. It’s very difficult … I won’t defend myself, because I won’t lower myself to their level.”

I ask how much longer he plans to be sheriff.

“Well, I’m getting up there. I can’t last forever. I just wish that I would have done it ten years earlier … I’m gonna do it again. I’m a fighter. The only reason I’m doing it again, the only reason, is that the people support me. The day the people say, ‘We don’t want you as sheriff,’ I’m gone … They’re my bosses. Now, when you say, ‘Are you gonna do it again a fourth time, when you’re seventy-two years old … ?’ Let’s see. Let’s see … I know I could be a good governor. Jane Hull … is a nice lady. She and I are the only ones who supported Bush against McCain. But she’s leaving. So if you’re gonna ask me, are you ever gonna run for governor, I’ll probably tell you … never say never.” He grins. “But, every politician wants to be somebody else. They don’t wanna stay where they’re at. Nobody believes me when I keep saying I just wanna be the sheriff.”

This is what makes Arpaio so compelling. He’s that rare entity, a person who’s content. Sitting there in his office, he knows he can do anything he wants. He knows he has no boss, knows he doesn’t have to answer to anyone. He knows his own power, and, however you might feel about what he does, he’s intoxicating to be around. In Arpaio’s world, everything is certain.

I tell him I know that crime is rising in Phoenix. He denies it, then says the violence is caused by the drug traffic. “I’m not talking about marijuana, I’m talking about methamphetamine. I don’t know how to stop the drug traffic, and I’ve been in it for thirty-eight years. I think if I knew, I’d be the president. I can give you what’s been said fifty years ago … It’s the same thing we’re saying today—tough law enforcement, prevention, rehabilitation … Nothing’s changed. The stuff coming across the border that we catch? Ten percent. Fifty years ago, ten percent. Today, ten percent. Nothing’s changed … I don’t know how to solve the problem. Don’t ask me.”

He says this so brightly, so animatedly, that at first I doubt what I’m hearing. Joe Arpaio, the man whose book is subtitled How We Can Win the War Against Crime, is telling me he doesn’t know how to reduce it.

A moment later he’s recalling how he busted Elvis Presley for speeding in Vegas.

We talk about recidivism, and he does have an answer to that: Education. Rehabilitation. He talks about one of his programs that aims to educate inmates about drugs. “We’ve graduated one thousand men and women. They go through a six-week course … Only eight percent came back to jail. It’s usually sixty, seventy percent.”

Arpaio serenely talks on. He doesn’t seem to realize I’m dumbfounded. He once told a reporter, “Hear me loud: Forget emphasizing rehabilitation, and punish the criminals!” Now he’s telling me that rehabilitation is all that works. He’s talking about having high schools in the jails for juvenile criminals, and about parenting programs, and about setting people up with jobs when they leave jail. The man who has become a legend, who gained his power by using cruelty as a political platform, is telling me that the philosophy that got him such power doesn’t work. He’s telling me that America’s Toughest Sheriff doesn’t exist.

A few months later his story has changed. It is election night, the results are still coming in, and Arpaio is well ahead. It is close to midnight, and he is at the Republican celebration, which is being held at the Marriott Hotel in Phoenix. There is a giant TV, and maybe three or four hundred people are waiting for it to tell them who the new president will be. Meantime, Arpaio’s fans are paying homage.

One man approaches him and says, “I’m having an argument with my wife. She says it’s pronounced ‘shereef,’ and I say it’s ‘sheriff.’ How do you say it?”

“Say it any way you want,” Arpaio tells him. “I get called a lot worse things than that. Don’t argue with your wife on my account.” The guy laughs, shakes hands with Arpaio, and moves on. He is immediately replaced by someone else, who asks Arpaio about the tents.

“I’m gonna get rid of the tents,” Arpaio tells him. “They don’t like being in the tents, okay, I’m gonna put them in foxholes and see how they like that. Maybe the tents are too good for them.”

He turns to me. “Tell me something,” he says. “If I did something like Jeff Groscost did, and the papers were all attacking me, do you think I’d lose the election?” He’s referring to a local political scandal centered around alternative fuel that cost the politician who dreamed it up the election.

No, I say, you’d probably win anyway.

He raises his fist in the air. “You’re damn right I would.”

The giant TV tells us that George W. Bush has won the election. People begin to cry. One man holds his baby in the air. A young woman screams and runs into her boyfriend’s arms. They kiss and hug, laughing; he lifts her off her feet and swings her around. Then he lets go of her and starts to jump up and down, pumping his clenched fist in the air. Then I see that almost everyone else is doing the same thing. They begin to chant, “Bush! Bush! BUSH!” with such force that my ears will still have a faint humming sound the next day. When Al Gore appears on the screen, they sing, “Na na na na na na na, hey, hey, goodbye.”

There is a raised stage, and it is mounted by Mike Minnaugh, local Republican Party chairman. He quiets the faithful, then says he wants to introduce someone. “This guy is the most well-known guy in the country,” he says, and before he can say the name, the crowd is already chanting it.


Arpaio ascends to the microphone, smiles, nods, waits for the cheers to die down. Then he delivers his speech. “You know, there’s something that George W. Bush said last week. He said … Uh … actually, I don’t re- member what he said, what the sound bite was … but, whatever it was he said, it was true.”

The applause almost levitates the stage.

An ordinary night in Phoenix. It’s one in the morning. I’m in a Circle K near Van Buren, the street that is the center of much of the city’s prostitution and drug dealing. The woman behind the counter looks elderly, but she may just be middle-aged and exhausted. As I wait in line, a mumbling junkie comes in, trying to panhandle, and she tells him to get out. As I pay her for my purchases, I notice a picture of Arpaio on the wall behind the counter. The woman sees me looking at it, and she gives me a gap-toothed smile. “Yeah,” she says. “We need him for governor. Damn right we do.”

is the author of five books, including <em>Before</em> and <em>The Book of Man.</em>

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April 2001

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