Commentary

Sheriff Joe Arpaio: America’s Toughest Defendant

U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow’s recent decision to refer Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for prosecution on criminal contempt charges brought a strong reaction from Arizona defense attorney Ivan Abrams.

“This monster is an embarrassment to good law enforcement officers,” Abrams said in a recent Facebook post. “Maybe (Arpaio’s) finally going to be called to answer in a criminal court for all the harm he’s done.”

A former Navy officer who has also worked as a federal and state prosecutor, Abrams knows something about fighting monsters. For many years he directed rule of law projects in Central Asia, home to some of the world’s most authoritarian dictators.

In 2011, Arizona’s own Turkmenbashi celebrated the 18th anniversary of his infamous Tent City outdoor jail by hiring an Elvis impersonator to entertain a captive audience of female inmates suffering in 112-degree heat. For years, Arpaio’s carefully crafted media stunts have obscured the human misery and broken lives left in the wake of nearly two decades of beatings, murders, suicides and the denial of medical care that has become the hallmark of Arpaio’s gulag.

The Arizona U.S. District Court’s online database reveals that Joseph M. Arpaio has been sued as a defendant well over 5,000 times since he took office in 1992. Nearly $150 million in taxpayer dollars has been awarded to his victims during that time.

From 1993 to 1999, Nick Hentoff represented numerous inmates who had been brutalized in Arpiao’s Maricopa County jail. One of them was a paraplegic who became a quadriplegic after detention officers dragged him from his wheelchair, tightly strapped him down into a restraint chair and literally left him to rot. Color photographs taken after he was released from jail showed the torn necrotic flesh and infected abscesses around his buttocks and thighs, which required multiple surgeries to repair. There were many others, some of whom left the jail in body bags.

Nick deposed Arpaio more times than he can remember. Throughout it all, Arpaio was always consistent in the steadfast support of even his most abusive employees.

In the mid-1990s, a reporter from the CBS Evening News confronted Arpaio with a video showing an unprovoked assault by a detention officer on one of his inmates, a man who had suffered a broken elbow after being slammed into a concrete wall.

Arpaio’s response after watching the video? “So what.”

Many people explain Arpaio’s longevity in public office with references to his overwhelming popularity with voters. But the real reason he has been allowed to cause so much suffering for so long is because Arizona’s political leaders lacked the political courage to stop him.

For example, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox has been described by The New York Times as “an early critic of Sheriff Arpaio’s.” The Times praised her for “speaking out against” him “when few other elected officials dared to defy the sheriff.”

Yet in 1996, Wilcox gladly accepted Arpaio’s endorsement for re-election — issued at the personal request of former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) — telling the Arizona Republic: “The sheriff is so in tune with the community … He said I had always been there for him and his community. That pretty much said it all.”

A year earlier Wilcox voted, along with the rest of the Board of Supervisors, to approve Arpaio’s plan to charge inmates (including pretrial detainees) for their own medical care. She sat stony-faced as prisoner rights activists unsuccessfully pleaded with the board to reject the draconian policy.

Wilcox also defended Arpaio against a 1997 report by Amnesty International, which carefully documented massive human rights violations in the living conditions of the 7,000 inmates in his jail system.

“(The report) just gives the overall impression that it’s not a system that treats you humanely. I don’t believe that,” Wilcox told the Republic.

Wilcox only started speaking out against Arpaio after a decade of inmate abuses, when he started his immigration raids that scooped up legal U.S. residents.

Arpaio then began to arrest the lawyers and other activists who stood up to him, including Arizona ACLU legal director Dan Pochoda and Fr. David Myers, a lawyer and ordained Jesuit priest. When a local newspaper exposed his racial profiling, Arpaio arrested the paper’s publishers.

Meanwhile, the judges, prosecutors and other elected officials watched and waited — until it was their turn to squirm under Arpaio’s jackbooted heel.

The sheriff brought politically motivated criminal charges against members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, including Wilcox, and a Maricopa County Superior Court judge who had ruled against Arpaio in a civil racketeering lawsuit he filed against county officials.

The prosecutor who did Arpaio’s bidding in bringing these charges was later disbarred by the Arizona Supreme Court. Arpaio eventually found himself under the supervision of a court monitor appointed by Judge Snow.

In addition to the looming criminal contempt prosecution, Arpaio also faces a tough re-election battle. But much of his core base of public support remains strong in a campaign year that has seen Donald Trump win the Republican nomination on an anti-immigration platform. Whether the sheriff is prosecuted may well depend on who controls the Justice Department in 2017.

The only clear lesson that can be drawn from Arpaio’s two-decade reign of terror is an affirmation of Edmund Burke’s famous aphorism: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow. Nick Hentoff is a criminal defense and civil liberties attorney in New York.