"America's Toughest Sheriff" Is Not Above the Law

Besides trampling on constitutional, human, and civil rights, sheriff Joe Arpaio has neglected other duties of his office and failed to make his community safer. In short, his tenure has not only been bad for undocumented immigrants, it's been bad for Latinos and Arizona as well.
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On January 5, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio revealed his re-election plans with typical bluster. The man who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" said,

For all those critics that demonstrate in front of my office for three years, calling me every name in the book, I'm going to announce right now... that I'm running again for sheriff, for my sixth four-year term. So maybe they're going to have a bad day, all these critics against me.

As Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arpaio embodies the anti-illegal immigration movement. He has made inmates wear pink underwear, paraded them in public in shackles, and housed them in tent cities. Now a scathing report from the Department of Justice (DOJ) documents Arpaio's unlawful discrimination against Latinos. Yet besides trampling on constitutional, human, and civil rights, Arpaio has neglected other duties of his office and failed to make his community safer. In short, his tenure has not only been bad for undocumented immigrants, it's been bad for Latinos and Arizona as well.

Last month, the DOJ found that Arpaio's office had illegally targeted Latinos for arrest and detention, and mistreated Spanish-speaking inmates. The DOJ backed their findings with thousands of pages of interviews and evidence. Their report cited a "pervasive culture of bias against Latinos." One expert termed it "the most egregious case of racial profiling in the U.S."

In Maricopa County, according to the DOJ, Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be pulled over while driving than white drivers. One Latino resident was incarcerated for thirteen days for failing to use a turn signal. In Arpaio's jails, prisoners who did not speak English were denied access to clean clothing and medical attention. In 2009, Arpaio forced a pregnant woman to give birth while shackled to her bed.

Meanwhile, in his focus on immigration enforcement, Arpaio has neglected critical duties of his office. Last year, an Arizona TV station reported that his office failed to investigate over 400 sex crime cases. Even the conservative Goldwater Institute has criticized the sheriff for not acting on more than 40,000 outstanding felony warrants. Arpaio apparently thinks that chasing undocumented dishwashers is more important than arresting violent criminals.

Defending Arpaio, Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies told the Washington Post that "his actions on immigration enforcement make everybody in this country safer." Really? Consider that violent crime has fallen everywhere in Arizona except in Sheriff Joe's jurisdiction. Between 2002 and 2009, violent crime dropped 12% in Arizona -- while increasing 58% in Maricopa County. So much for effective crime fighting.

Even worse, Arpaio's policies have negatively impacted relations between local law enforcement and the community. In 2008, then-Mesa Police Chief George Gascon complained about a "wedge being drawn between police and immigrant groups." The DOJ found that a "wall of distrust" had been created with Hispanics, which is a hindrance to police officers who must deal with crime victims and potential witnesses. Then there is the damage that Sheriff Joe's highly visible campaigns have done to Arizona's image. Once proudly known as the Grand Canyon State, today it is also widely seen as intolerant of Latinos.

Thankfully, the people of Arizona may have had enough. One of Arpaio's allies, State Sen. Russell Pearce, architect of the state's infamous "papers, please" law, was recalled in a special election last year. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, have expressed concern about Maricopa County's botched sex crime investigations.

Arpaio maintains he is being used as "a whipping boy for a national and international problem." Still, that doesn't excuse his flouting of the law. It's ironic that someone who is so obsessed with who is "legal" would be willing to commit so many illegal acts himself. Arpaio is a perfect example of why local law enforcement officials should not be immigration agents. He has run amuck, harassing Latinos while generating lawsuits, investigations, and the ire of the Hispanic community. If he manages to get re-elected, he needs to understand that no one is above the law -- not even "America's Toughest Sheriff."

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