2009Local Reporting

REASONABLE DOUBT: Sweeping powers

Few willing to tangle with popular sheriff over controversial tactics
By: 
Paul Giblin and Ryan Gabrielson
July 13, 2008

Sheriff Joe Arpaio famously and frequently likes to remind people about his nearly unlimited scope and powers in Maricopa County.

Over the past year that he’s been doing high-profile immigration sweeps, Arpaio has repeatedly decreed his authority in TV sound bites and newspaper quotes.

“I’m the sheriff.”

“I don’t need anybody to tell me where to go. Let’s get that straight.”

“I’m the sheriff, and I don’t need to be invited to Mesa. I can go in anytime I want.”

And, in fact, that is the reality.

He does have broad enforcement authority throughout the county, even in cities that have their own police departments.

But politics are clearly the main reason very few will get into a public fight with the popular sheriff, who responds to his critics through news release blasts. His political ties run deep; he’s often allied with state lawmakers and city officials. Earlier this year, he campaigned for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

County and federal agencies that have oversight over — and some ability to restrict — his operations have done little to interfere with Arpaio’s broad enforcement effort. Agency officials, many of whom are elected themselves, cite his widespread popularity with voters. They are reluctant to even talk about him.

In March, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon was the first high-level elected official to publicly go against Arpaio’s immigration sweeps. In a speech to the annual Cesar Chavez Day luncheon, Gordon — fed up with crime suppression operations in northeast Phoenix that drew hundreds of protesters and fears of violence — accused Arpaio of going after “brown people with broken taillights.” He urged other political and civic leaders to speak out against what he saw as clearly racist roundups.

But his call to action went largely unanswered. Some church organizations and Hispanic activists wrote letters and organized protests at meetings of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and elsewhere, but broad support for Gordon never materialized.

“It takes a lot of courage to say anything because of the price one pays,” Gordon says now.

He believes regulators and county officials are simply afraid of Arpaio. “Because of the fear of retribution which has occurred, including against the former county attorney, the attorney general of the state of Arizona, publishers of newspapers.”

Arpaio has gotten into very public fights with those officials, and, working with current Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, even had the owners of Phoenix New Times arrested as part of a long-smoldering dispute over information about Arpaio that the paper had published.

In May, Gov. Janet Napolitano withdrew $600,000 Arpaio had been hoping to use for immigration enforcement efforts. She gave the money to the state Department of Public Safety to use to clear up a backlog of tens of thousands of felony warrants, many for violent crimes, that had built up for years.

Even though she never made the link between the sheriff’s immigration effort and the money, Arpaio did — in a steady stream of news releases accusing her of trying to undermine his effort.

“Despite the Governor’s attempts to stop me from fighting illegal immigration, my deputies are under my order to continue to enforce all aspects of the human smuggling laws,” Arpaio said in one of many statements distributed widely to the media.

But even as Arpaio’s immigration program has brought MCSO into violation of federal rules on racial profiling, caused 911 response times to soar, and pushed the agency into financial crisis, the government entities responsible for keeping an eye on the agency have done little more then review reports and ask for information.

THE COUNTY

Because Arpaio is an elected official — he’s running for a fifth term this year — he has wide leeway to run MCSO any way he wants. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approves his budget overall, but not the specifics of how he spends it.

The supervisors also set performance standards such as response times for emergency calls. The board has set five minutes as the standard for the most serious calls. Even though MCSO averages 10 minutes as its response time, the board has never addressed that issue.

Four of the five supervisors are Republicans, like Arpaio. They have publicly aligned themselves with the sheriff.

None of the four — Fulton Brock, Don Stapley, Andy Kunasek and Max Wilson — returned repeated phone calls for this story. Stapley’s spokesman called to say Stapley would not comment.

Mary Rose Wilcox, a Democrat, would only say that the board has very little authority over Arpaio because he’s elected.

“If it was one of our departments, we’d be tearing it apart, OK?” Wilcox said. “But it’s not one of our departments. It’s an elected office. It’s very different.”

Not so, said Richard Romley, Maricopa County Attorney for 16 years until he left office in 2004. The supervisors have complete authority to force the sheriff’s office to provide whatever information they seek.

“Shame on the board of supervisors. And quite honestly, they should be held accountable, they’re not doing their job,” said Romley, also a Republican. “They have subpoena powers to get his records.”

At a June 19 budget hearing, the four Republican members stood to show their support for Arpaio when he declared he would continue his immigration policies despite increasingly frequent and broad-based opposition.

Minutes earlier, more than 100 members of a group calling themselves Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability demanded the supervisors give greater scrutiny to Arpaio’s immigration policies and spending.

THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement last year partnered with MCSO and made 100 of the sheriff’s detectives and patrol deputies sworn federal agents as well. The deputies now have broad authority to arrest illegal immigrants under federal law.

The powers come with stringent rules concerning how to use them, rules the sheriff’s office admittedly ignores.

Vincent Picard, ICE’s spokesman in Arizona, said Friday the agency did not have any comment on the sheriff’s operations or the Tribune’s findings. ICE officials have insisted that MCSO has not violated its contract with the federal agency and say they will not curtail Arpaio’s immigration enforcement.

The lone federal exception may be the U.S. Department of Justice.

On April 4, Gordon, the Phoenix mayor, asked Justice officials to investigate whether Arpaio’s deputies are violating civil rights by using racial profiling on their immigration traffic stops.

“I do not make this request lightly,” Gordon wrote in a four-page letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey. “This request is based on Sheriff Arpaio’s pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests.”

Justice spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson confirmed that officials are monitoring the situation, but she declined further comment.

Phoenix FBI spokesman Richard Murray declined to say whether the FBI is involved. “That’s just not one we can address,” he said. Bureau policy bars public discussion of investigations until, and only if, indictments are issued.

Sheriff’s office spokesman Capt. Paul Chagolla said he is unaware of any federal follow-up to Gordon’s request.

Gordon on Saturday wouldn’t talk about whether Arpaio or his political allies have retaliated against him for challenging the sheriff, saying that the Justice Department has advised him not to say anything.