Politics & Policy

No, Joe

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

The Alabama Senate race was disastrous for Republicans, who found themselves apologizing for a crackpot accused of serious and potentially criminal wrongdoing. Republicans have the opportunity to avoid repeating the error in Arizona where former sheriff Joe Arpaio, a publicity-made abusive lawman and convicted criminal pardoned by President Trump, plans to seek the GOP nomination. Republicans should say no to Sheriff Joe.

Long a favorite of Fox News and talk radio, Arpaio is a publicity whore of the first order. An old Washington joke holds that the most dangerous place in America is standing between a senator and a television camera, and Sheriff Joe surely loves a camera. But a much more dangerous place to be, for much of Arpaio’s 24-year-run as the sheriff of Maricopa County, was the jail he ran, where inmates were brutalized and disabled men were beaten to death — and where the sheriff’s political opponents were incarcerated from time to time.

Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt last summer for willfully violating a federal court order. Specifically, he was convicted of violating an order that he cease arresting and detaining people for whom there was no plausible criminal charge — i.e., the court asked him, pretty please, to stop detaining Mexicans for publicity purposes. Arpaio says he was arresting illegal immigrants, and he may well have been, but it is not a criminal offense simply to be illegally present in the United States. (That is a civil matter.) Until such a time as Congress passes a law making such presence a crime (and delegates enforcement of that federal statute to the sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.), arresting people under color of law for that non-crime isn’t law enforcement — it’s lawlessness.

But Sheriff Joe has a thing for arresting people who haven’t committed any crime. He arrested a Republican critic — the county supervisor — on trumped-up charges in 2008 and ended up handing over $3.5 million of taxpayers’ money in a wrongful-arrest settlement. He tried to bully the mayor of Phoenix in much the same way, demanding phone logs and other records as part of a nonsensical “investigation” designed to silence a critic. In another spectacular abuse of power, Arpaio teamed up with a friendly county attorney and filed a federal lawsuit seeking the federal prosecution of several judges and lawyers — his political enemies — under the RICO organized-crime statute. Arpaio, being Arpaio, held a press conference announcing the investigation, which the federal courts immediately threw out as “patently frivolous.” Millions more taxpayers’ dollars were paid out in settlements.

On the other hand, the sheriff has a long record of failing to arrest those who need arresting. An investigation by the Arizona Republic found that only 18 percent of Arpaio’s agency’s cleared cases were cleared by arrest, while 82 percent were “exceptionally cleared,” meaning that they were declared to have been solved without any charges being filed. Those “exceptionally cleared” cases included the gang rape of a 14-year-old and the rape of a 13-year-old, allegedly at the hands of her father. One of those cases was declared cleared even before DNA evidence had been processed. “Exceptional clearance” is a designation used in a small handful of circumstances, e.g., when police are convinced that they know who committed a crime but the suspect is dead and therefore beyond prosecution. Whatever “exceptional” means, it doesn’t mean 82 percent of your cases are cleared that way.

The conservative Goldwater Institute was unsparing in its assessment of Arpaio:

Although MCSO is adept at self-promotion and is an unquestionably ‘tough’ law-enforcement agency, under its watch violent crime rates recently have soared, both in absolute terms and relative to other jurisdictions. It has diverted resources away from basic law-enforcement functions to highly publicized immigration sweeps, which are ineffective in policing illegal immigration and in reducing crime generally, and to extensive trips by MCSO officials to Honduras for purposes that are nebulous at best. Profligate spending on those diversions helped produce a financial crisis in late 2007 that forced MCSO to curtail or reduce important law-enforcement functions.

No doubt the good people of Phoenix and its suburbs are happy to have their sheriff’s deputies traipsing around Honduras.

He likes to call himself “America’s toughest sheriff.” Not if you’re raping children, he isn’t.

If you’re disabled, though . . . 

During Arpaio’s tenure, Maricopa County was obliged to pay out more than $43 million in settlements to inmates (or their survivors) who had been abused in Arpaio’s custody — or died in it. That includes more than $8 million paid to the family of a man who was bound and suffocated to death by Arpaio’s deputies and $2 million to the family of a prisoner — a blind man — beaten to death by Arpaio’s goons while in custody. The sheriff’s office was accused of destroying evidence in both cases. Arpaio was moved to investigate his deputies in the suffocation case. He found no wrongdoing.

We respect a grey head as much as the next bunch of conservatives, but note: If Arpaio happened to be elected to the Senate in November, he’d be 92 at the end of his term. There’s no reason to suspect he will improve with age. Unlike wine, poison doesn’t mature in the cask. Poison stays poison.

A limelight-seeking octogenarian petty criminal, a serial abuser of police power, a man who oversaw inhuman and indeed homicidal brutality committed against blind and paralyzed prisoners in his custody, a preening huckster of the first order: Arizona Republicans owe it to themselves to do better.

It’s hard to imagine how they could do worse.


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Trump’s Unmerited, Unnecessary, Impulsive Pardon of Sheriff Arpaio

The Joe Arpaio Pardon Won’t Destroy Democracy


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