Arpaio disgrace complete, but Maricopa County must now deal with damage
He was once praised for being “America’s toughest sheriff.” But as of yesterday, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was convicted of a crime of his own.
Arpaio’s rise and fall mirror the way America has looked at criminal justice in the 21st Century. Once an icon of the right, Arpaio’s approach to policing has proven to be ineffective. For many, he was an embarrassment even before his conviction.
Arpaio was convicted earlier this week of criminal contempt for defying a judge’s order to stop criminally profiling Latinos and turn them over to federal authorities. He faces up to six months in jail and has vowed to appeal his conviction.
He was first elected sheriff in 1992 and was the top law enforcement officer in Maricopa County until 2016, when he lost a bid for a seventh term in office.
During his 24-year tenure Arpaio gained national attention for making prisoners in the Maricopa County jail wear pink underwear, and setting up tents in 120 degree weather for prisoners to sleep in.
He also gained a national reputation for being virulently anti-immigrant, conducting raids that locked up numerous Latinos, many of whom turned out to be American citizens, and joined Donald Trump in insisting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
Under Arpaio people in jail were also forced to give birth while shackled and the number of people who died while in custody was significantly higher than in other jails.
In the end, Arpaio’s approach was not only barbaric — it didn’t actually stop crime. “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, said a 2008 report written by the conservative Goldwater Foundation that critiqued Arpaio. “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 Arpaio’s obsessions came with a cost. At last count, legal fees for lawsuits filed against him cost over $140 million to taxpayers. What’s more, response times and cases solved lagged behind other police departments since Arpaio devoted so much time to undocumented immigrants, using resources that should have been used for regular police work. And courts repeatedly ruled that Arpaio’s actions were illegal, and violated the constitutional rights of many of the people the sheriff was sworn to protect.
Now, the man who defeated him in 2016, Sheriff Paul Penzone, must clean up the mess and try to win back the trust of Latinos and many others who lost all faith in a criminal justice system that gave someone like Arpaio so much power.
As Casey Tolan previously reported at Slate, Penzone’s record so far has been mixed, with Penzone reversing a decision not to hand over undocumented immigrants to federal authorities a week after he announced it.
But Penzone has pledged to go back to making his office an effective and reasonable police force. Some people have called Penzone boring, and after a generation of Arpaio’s shenanigans, boring sounds pretty good.