Steve Benson: It makes political scents


Some bad news for a garrulous Arizona lawman, via the editorial cartoonist of the Arizona Republic:

BLOG Benson

Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who wants to bring justice back to the 18th Century, may be headed for the slammer, thanks to the ruling of a federal judge who finally had enough of the 84-year-old bigoted blowhard.

Just who is Arpaio?

From a 2009 New Yorker profile by William Finnegan:

The biggest part of the sheriff’s job is running the jails, and Arpaio saw that there was political gold to be spun there. The voters had declined to finance new jail construction, and so, in 1993, Arpaio, vowing that no troublemakers would be released on his watch because of overcrowding, procured a consignment of Army-surplus tents and had them set up, surrounded by barbed wire, in an industrial area in southwest Phoenix. “I put them up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant,” he told me. Phoenix is an open-air blast furnace for much of the year. Temperatures inside the tents hit a hundred and thirty-five degrees. Still, the tents were a hit with the public, or at least with the conservative majority that voted. Arpaio put up more tents, until Tent City jail held twenty-five hundred inmates, and he stuck a neon “VACANCY” sign on a tall guard tower. It was visible for miles.

His popularity grew. What could he do next? Arpaio ordered small, heavily publicized deprivations. He banned cigarettes from his jails. Skin magazines. Movies. Coffee. Hot lunches. Salt and pepper—Arpaio estimated that he saved taxpayers thirty thousand dollars a year by removing salt and pepper. Meals were cut to two a day, and Arpaio got the cost down, he says, to thirty cents per meal. “It costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates,” he told me. Jail, Arpaio likes to say, is not a spa—it’s punishment. He wants inmates whose keenest wish is never to get locked up again. He limits their television, he told me, to the Weather Channel, C-SPAN, and, just to aggravate their hunger, the Food Network. For a while, he showed them Newt Gingrich speeches. “They hated him,” he said cheerfully. Why the Weather Channel, a British reporter once asked. “So these morons will know how hot it’s going to be while they are working on my chain gangs.”

Arpaio wasn’t kidding about chain gangs. Foreign television reporters couldn’t get enough footage of his inmates shuffling through the desert. New ideas for the humiliation of people in custody—whom the Sheriff calls, with persuasive disgust, “criminals,” although most are actually awaiting trial, not convicted of any crime—kept occurring to him. He put his inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms. The shock value of these retro prisoner outfits was powerful and complex. There was comedy, nostalgia, dehumanization, even a whiff of something annihilationist. He created female chain gangs, “the first in the history of the world,” and, eventually, juvenile chain gangs. The chain gangs’ tasks include burying the indigent at the county cemetery, but mainly they serve as spectacles in Arpaio’s theatre of cruelty. “I put them out there on the main streets,” he told me. “So everybody sees them out there cleaning up trash, and parents say to their kids, ‘Look, that’s where you’re going if you’re not good.’ “ The law-and-order public loved it, and the Sheriff’s fame spread. Rush Limbaugh praised him, and blurbed his book. Phil Donahue berated him.

Racial profiling for immigrant leads to citation

What landed Arpaio is legal hot water was his decision to turn his local local enforcement agent into a ruthless machine for tracking down immigrants.

Which is odd, because immigration violations are federal, not state, crimes.

But hunting down brown people played big with his political base, exploiting the same fears and sensation a certain presidential candidate would later pursue — a candidate Arpaio has endorsed, telling Fox News “He’s our only savior right now.”

The latest from the New York Times:

A federal judge on Friday referred Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his second-in-command for criminal prosecution, finding that they ignored and misrepresented to subordinates court orders designed to keep the sheriff’s office from racially profiling Latinos.

In making the referral to the United States attorney’s office for criminal contempt charges, Judge G. Murray Snow of Federal District Court in Phoenix delivered the sharpest rebuke against Mr. Arpaio, who as the long-serving sheriff in Maricopa County made a name for himself as an unrelenting pursuer of undocumented immigrants.

Sheriff Arpaio and Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan “have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case,” Judge Snow wrote in his order.

Sheriff Arpaio and Mr. Sheridan had also made numerous false statements under oath, Judge Snow wrote, and “there is also probable cause to believe that many if not all of the statements were made in an attempt to obstruct any inquiry into their further wrongdoing or negligence.”

More from the Arizona Republic:

Snow’s decision, announced in a federal court filing, answers the key question that loomed over more than a year of contempt proceedings: Was the sheriff’s disregard of orders a criminal or civil contempt-of-court violation?

But it creates a whole new set of legal questions for the embattled lawman.

  • Will the U.S. Attorney’s Office accept the recommendation?
  • What will the charge be?
  • If Arpaio is found guilty, will a conviction legally force him to resign?
  • Could Arpaio end up behind bars?
  • Will Snow’s decision affect Arpaio’s odds for a seventh term?

Reached for comment Friday evening, Arpaio said he hadn’t yet read the order but that it was being reviewed by his attorneys.

UPDATE: We found the perfect song for Sheriff Joe, sung in California’s Folsom Prison by the one and only Johnny Cash:

Johnny Cash — I Got Stripes

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