Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a relentless self-promoter who christened himself “The World’s Toughest Sheriff,” has invited Phoenix-area parents to send their grade school and teenage kids to jail for the summer.
“Summer Stars” is a two-day program supposedly intended to teach impressionable youngsters about the rigors of life behind bars, thereby deterring them from bad behavior. The program will be held in two sessions – June 23-24, and July 21-22 – and will be open for students from ages 8 to 18.
Arpaio’s department says that the experience is “designed to show young people the realities of jail life and prevent them from getting involved in illegal activity,” reports KTVK News in Phoenix. Participants will wear prisoner attire, work as inmate laborers, eat jail food, sleep in tents or bunks, and be required to follow jail regulations. Arpaio inexplicably assures parents that the temporary inmates “will have some fun, too” – which to any informed resident of Maricopa County would seem like a threat, rather than an assurance, especially to parents of children who are, or who might be mistaken to be, of Latino ancestry. After all, there is a very good chance that the senescent sheriff may soon find himself facing felony charges before a federal court for abusing people of that description.
Just weeks ago, Arpaio and his Chief Deputy, Jerry Sheridan, were found in contempt of federal court by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow for violating a judge’s order to abusive policies that were found to constitute “racial profiling” of Latinos.
In his 162-page ruling, Judge Snow concluded that Arpaio and Sheridan, along with two other officials, “have engaged in multiple acts of misconduct, dishonesty, and bad faith with respect to the Plaintiff class and the protection of its rights.”
Arpaio has claimed that his refusal to make policy changes ordered by the federal court was the result of miscommunication, rather than deliberate defiance. If the former is true, the county will have to absorb yet another blow in an apparently endless string of expensive civil judgments incurred over the course of Arpaio’s lengthy career. If the latter can be proven, the sheriff may face a criminal referral.
Like Donald Trump, whose presidential bid he has endorsed, Arpaio has made a name for himself as a paladin of border security. Until 2005, however, he was actually seen by some as liberal regarding the issue of illegal immigration; that changed when he discovered the political potency of that issue with his core constituency, the retirement-age “Snowbird” population. That year witnessed two significant changes in Maricopa County: First, Arpaio re-cast himself as a crusader for border security, and second, he received a federal 287(g) waiver empowering his deputies to enforce federal immigration laws.
Over the course of the next few years, Arpaio turned Maricopa County into a literal police state in which anybody who “looks” or “sounds” like an illegal immigrant — including U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents of Mexican ancestry — could be summarily arrested and detained. While Arpaio’s deputies — who often carried out their raids wearing ski masks — focused their attention on people whose sole offense is to work in Arizona without official permission, more than 70,000 criminal warrants, many of which dealt with actual offenses against persons and property, were left unenforced.
Under Arpaio’s reign, the county became a community in which a mother could be seized from her car at gunpoint by goons in ski masks while her children shriek in terror. In Arpaio’s realm, a woman nine months pregnant could be hauled away to jail in handcuffs and leg irons on minor, non-violent charges, forced to deliver her child while chained to a hospital bed, and then kept separated from her newborn for more than two months — because she is suspected of being an illegal immigrant.
In early 2009, this year the federal government formally revoked the “authority” provided by the 287(g) waiver and instructed Arpaio that he could no longer use his personnel to enforce federal immigration laws. The following day, Arpaio conducted one of his notorious “immigration sweeps,” an exercise in which deputies “descend on heavily Latino neighborhoods, arrest hundreds of people for violations as minor as a busted headlight and ask them whether they are in the country legally,” reported the Los Angeles Times.
“I wanted to show everybody it didn’t make a difference,” explained Arpaio — quite redundantly, as it happened, for those who have come to understand that the superannuated dictator of Maricopa County answers only to himself. To reinforce that status, Arpaio announced an entirely bogus RICO investigation of his critics within the county government.
“It’s just extraordinary, the kind of thing that takes place in Third World dictatorships,”observed former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, who represented an official targeted by Arpaio. “So many people are of one mind on a single issue — illegal immigration — that they are willing to ignore [Arpaio’s] misdeeds.”
That was not the first time Arpaio used the power of his office to punish his critics.
In August 2007, the Maricopa County Prosecutor’s Office hit the Phoenix New Times with a grand jury subpoena demanding detailed information, including “Every note, tape, and record from every story written about Sheriff Arpaio by every reporter over a period of years” as well as “detailed information on anyone who has looked at the New Times Web site since 2004″ as well as every individual “individual who looked at any story, review, listing, classified, or retail ad [in the publication] over a period of years.”
The pretext for that act of official harassment was that the New Times, in investigating Arpaio’s conflicts of interest regarding ownership of commercial properties, had violated state law by disclosing the valiant sheriff’s home address.
To their credit, the editorial staff of the New Times went public with the details of that Grand Jury subpoena. That prompted Arpaio to send his Selective Enforcement Unit to arrest Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, the owners of the Phoenix New Times on a spurious charge of interfering with the deliberations of a grand jury.
The joint assault by Arpaio and Thomas on freedom of speech and the press provoked a nation-wide paroxysm of outrage that forced Thomas to free Lacey and Larkin and withdraw the charges against them. (It was later revealed that no grand jury had actually been empaneled.)
Maricopa County parents who share Arpaio’s views on immigration, and whose children exhibit none of the stigmata associated with being “illegals,” should reflect on the fact that more than a few people have died in the sheriff’s custody after being briefly detained on suspicion of non-violent offenses.
Scott Norberg, incarcerated on narcotics charges in 1996, was killed through “positional asphyxia” after being handcuffed with his face to the floor and then shackled to a restraint chair. County taxpayers eventually paid an $8 million settlement to the family of the victim.
Deputies murdered Philip Wilson in Arpaio’s storied “Tent City” by beating him into a coma in July 2003. Wilson, who had been sentenced to two months for a parole violation, spent several months in a coma before dying. His father claims that Wilson was “set up” by Arpaio’s deputies after he had complained about conditions in the jail. Witnesses said that Wilson was beaten so severely that “his blood was sprayed across the tent.”
After being arrested for loitering, a mentally handicapped man named Charles Agster was beaten to death by deputies. Deborah Ann Braillard, a 46-year-old diabetic woman, died of medical neglect after being jailed on a narcotics charge. Since Braillard had been previously incarcerated by the department, its personnel had record of her condition, but they withheld appropriate treatment for two days.
Between the abuses committed in the county jail on which Arpaio built his reputation, and the ongoing legal battle over his defiance of federal court orders, Arpaio has cost the tax victims of Maricopa County an estimated $200 million. Any parent residing in the county who would foolishly entrust his or her child to the temporary custody of Arpaio’s department runs a significant risk of losing someone irreplaceable in the service of burnishing the reputation of a megalomaniac and sociopath who is unsuitable for the company of decent people.