Joe Arpaio Is Terrible, and Trump Pardoned Him

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Joe Arpaio is a real son-of-a-bitch. Forget about being pardoned for criminal contempt of court—he’s lucky he’s not in jail for worse. (Photo Credit: Angie Wang/AP)

In the interim before Donald Trump was sworn into office, no one was quite sure what to expect when the orange-faced one with a predilection for comically long ties would take the reins. He was, by most accounts, long on rhetoric and short on defined policy goals, such that when he finally was made official as the 45th President of the United States of America, observers were keen to look for any signs of possible shifts in our country’s approach to various economic, political, and social issues. In the early going, the White House’s official website proved to be quite the good indicator of where the Trump administration stands on key topics. Before we had even gotten to February, Trump and Co. had purged the site of pages referring to climate change, civil rights/LGBT rights, and regulations.

Obviously, these were symbolic gestures, but given how swift and specific the changes were, as well as the weight they took on considering they were coming from the leader of the nation, they spoke volumes. More than half a year since these alterations went into effect, Pres. Trump has since pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement—a symbolic device in it of itself—has vowed to roll back Dodd-Frank, backed by Paul Ryan and his pro-business lackeys in Congress; and has issued a directive to ban transgender people from the United States military, with apparent intentions to remove protections for the LGBT community within the Affordable Care Act and having communicated a position that favors the ability of businesses to discriminate against homosexuals all in the name of “religious freedom.” In short, it was evident early on in Donald Trump’s presidency that this was a new day and age for the U.S.A.—except that it was a return to previous positions marked by a deliberate reversal against progress we’ve made over the years and decades. We were “making America great again”—two steps forward and five steps back.

Perhaps the most notable change made to the White House’s official website, however, particularly in light of how Donald Trump started his campaign, was the removal of Spanish-language content from whitehouse.gov. As you’ll recall, Trump began his political ascendancy by essentially boiling down the entire country of Mexico—one with a rich culture and history—down to a haven for crime, drugs, and rape. You know, with some decent folks sprinkled in. As Trump stayed more than relevant in the polls, his message grew no more nuanced regarding his characterization of our neighbor to the south and his potential policies to be enacted, with calls for a costly, ineffective, imprudent, and literally divisive wall to be built growing ever louder and threatening to start a row between the countries with the insistence that Mexico pays for the wall after the election. Or, if you’re former Mexican president Vicente Fox, that f**king wall. Guy likes his expletives—what can I say?

Heretofore, that bleeping monstrosity has yet to be constructed, but an appreciably different tone has been taken toward the issue of immigration—both legal and illegal. While the Obama administration was responsible for its fair share of deportations, the increased vigor with which ICE agents have gone after undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they have committed violent crimes has evoked greater feelings of fear and a heightened sense that these deportations are being carried out as a measure of deliberate cruelty. As for the legal immigration aspect, so too does a shift seem to be underway regarding white supremacists’ notions of empowerment and entitlement following Trump’s electoral victory that would see America reject an international mindset and multiculturalism as detrimental forces to the country. To those who are willing participants in what is termed as a “culture war,” this is a conflict for the very soul of the nation. As protracted conflicts go, so too does collateral damage, and one need look no further than the violence in Charlottesville to see just how much people believe this ideological clash to be one worth physically and emotionally fighting.

The latest turn in the ongoing saga that is Donald Trump’s America vs. Mexicans, Muslims, and other people of color, is related to his pardoning of a figure central to the issue of immigration. A figure that, to call him controversial, would be akin to calling water wet. With Hurricane Harvey barreling down on the state of Texas and much of the United States duly distracted, President Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio, former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, known to many as “Sheriff Joe.” Arpaio was facing a contempt of court charge stemming from his willful disregard of a federal court order from 2011. The original complaint was filed in 2007 when his department detained a Mexican man with a valid tourist’s visa for nine hours. Arpaio and the rest of the MCSO were found to be in violation in this instance and others, stopping motorists based on racial profiling and effectually trying to enforce immigration law out of their jurisdiction (immigration law is a federal issue, not a state matter). Joe Arpaio, though, not one to go gently into that good night, openly defied the order, even going as far as to tell local news media he wasn’t going to abide by the court’s mandate and lying under oath to misrepresent the fact his department was still profiling and making immigration-based arrests. So, in 2015, Arpaio, still Maricopa County sheriff, was charged with civil contempt of court, and last year, when a U.S. District Judge assessed that Sheriff Joe still wasn’t doing a very good job of not doing the feds’ job, she found him guilty of criminal contempt and set sentencing for October 5. That’s when President Trump swooped in and pardoned Joe Arpaio, no longer head of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after losing in his re-election bid this past November.

OK, so maybe the Artist Formerly Known as Sheriff Joe was a bit zealous in wanting to uphold immigration law as well as that endemic to Maricopa County. One would imagine he is not the only lawman to feel this way, and Arizona does possess its own unique challenges within the immigration sphere. Moreover, as Arpaio’s supporters would allege, this trial was, above all else, a “show trial.” The man was working with the federal government to help them in their pursuit of those who had failed to abide by the law. That’s not such a bad thing, is it? You’d really put an octogenarian in jail for up to six months? If it were just about giving the federal courts the proverbial middle finger, perhaps one might be tempted to agree with Joe Arpaio’s fervent champions. Might, I stress, might.

Thus far, however, we have only scratched the surface of how Joe Arpaio became one of the most hated sheriffs, if not the most hated sheriff, in all of America. Michelle Mark, writing for Business Insider, profiles the litany of policies enacted under Arpaio’s watch that human rights activists would find more than disagreeable. He removed salt and pepper as well as coffee from the meals at county jails, of which there were only two a day. He held inmates outside in “Tent City” in extreme conditions in summer and winter with limited amounts of cold water during the former and meant no heaters or jackets during the latter. His office was regularly cited for use of excessive force, including use of pepper spray and restraint chairs. He approved of “random” searches of cars for people suspected of being illegal immigrants (which, often enough, were Native Americans instead of Hispanics/Latinos), and supported Arizona SB 1070, also known as the “Papers, Please” law and ratified in 2010, which essentially allowed uniformed police to harass and intimidate people within Arizona’s Spanish-speaking community. For all his bluster about being America’s “toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office were sued an inordinate amount of times from the families of those convicted of crimes, alleging police brutality. What makes this all especially egregious is that the Justice Department knew full well of the scope of Arpaio’s use of racial profiling and other misdeeds, but let him off with little more than a slap on the wrist. Democrat Janet Napolitano, prior to becoming governor of Arizona, led that investigation. So, naturally, whose endorsement did Napolitano seek and get in advance of her first gubernatorial election victory? Joe Arpaio’s. Politics is great like that, huh?

But, wait—it gets better. And, of course, by “better,” I mean, worse. Reporters like Michelle Mark and pontificating bloggers such as myself speak about Joe Arpaio’s transgressions from afar, but the powers-that-be behind the Phoenix New Times, a free local newspaper, have had a front row seat to the kind of bullshit Arpaio and his former department regularly pulled in the name of “law and order.” In an epic series of Tweets, the periodical’s official Twitter account provided additional context for how Sheriff Joe ran the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Here are some of the, ahem, “highlights”:

  • Going back to that Tent City business, Arpaio unapologetically referred to his creation as a “concentration camp.”
  • Inmates in his jails died at a disproportionate rate to other such facilities, whether because they took their own lives or as a direct result of harsh treatment by their jailers. Often, the MCSO had no explanation for these fatalities.
  • One time, as a publicity stunt, Arpaio had Latino inmates marched into a segregated area with electric fencing.
  • He also ran, before its ultimate cancellation, a “Mugshot of the Day” feature on the MCSO website where the public could vote on pictures of prisoners for their enjoyment.
  • The department failed to investigate scores of sex abuse cases, but had enough time to send a deputy to Hawaii to try to procure Barack Obama’s birth certificate. (Yup. He was/is a birther.)
  • Following the official finding by U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow that Arpaio had been profiling Latinos, he hired a private investigator to investigate the judge and his wife. He also attempted to destroy evidence specifically requested by the judge.
  • Arpaio had a “Sheriff’s Posse,” one of whom was brought up on child porn charges, and according to the New Times, the Sheriff’s Office was “responsible for countless fiascos” like a “botched SWAT raid, where deputies set a puppy on fire.” That doesn’t exactly sound like serving and protecting, if you ask me.

It is with a hint of irony, then, that Joe Arpaio’s supporters talk about court proceedings against him being a “show trial” and that Arpaio himself derides it all as being a “witch hunt” when he has exhibited all the signs of being a showman—even when countless lives stand to hang in the balance. That Donald Trump, a consummate showman and strongman in his own right, would pardon him sends a clear message about where we are in the state of American politics, and it likewise clearly communicates to his core supporters that the fears and prejudices of white America will be held sacrosanct above the rights of all others. Justice for all? Not by a long shot.


The debate over whether or not Joe Arpaio deserved his pardon unfortunately can invoke the kind of conflicts which denote the existence of the phrase “Blue Lives Matter.” Arpaio was a lawman, and I imagine he and the MCSO were responsible for their fair share of apprehending legitimate violent criminals. This does not, however, and should not exculpate him of what would appear to be a long list of offenses against the civil rights of inmates in Maricopa County jails, not to mention those who suffered physical harm, psychological distress, and/or death as a function of being housed in these “correctional facilities.” Simply put, two wrongs do not make a right, and that Arpaio might’ve gotten six months in jail for criminal contempt of court would have realistically been getting off light in light of the destruction he has encouraged in Hispanic/Latino communities. I’m not a religious person, but if Hell exists, I firmly believe Joe Arpaio may have earned himself a spot there—if only temporarily. Moreover, by characterizing Sheriff Joe in this way, I am recognizing that those sworn to uphold the law may abuse their privileges, but I am not condemning police forces and uniformed police wholesale. I believe most individuals who wear the badge do the right thing and want to do so because it is the right thing. Some, on the other hand, are bad actors, as with any profession. At least from where I’m standing, rather than reacting defensively to any outside criticism, those police should want to know when one of their own has been irresponsible or derelict in his or her duties. That is, the universal fraternity of policemen and policewomen has its limits.

Returning to an earlier notion and somewhat of a devil’s advocate distinction, Arpaio is not the only sheriff who has been accused of approaching law enforcement at all levels with—shall we say—extreme robustness. Still, he and others like him shouldn’t be celebrated or pardoned by the President of the United States, much less have their latest book plugged on Twitter. Such was the case when Donald Trump took to his favorite medium to hock Sheriff David Clarke’s book and to cheer him as a great man. There’s any number of problems with these sentiments coming from POTUS, not the least of which is that, based on what we know of Mr. Trump, dude doesn’t read all that much, so how he can recommend something he almost certainly has never cracked open? Besides this, though, Clarke, sheriff of Milwaukee County in Wisconsin, is a notorious figure in his own right. As with Joe Arpaio, David Clarke and his office have been the subject of numerous lawsuits alleging abuse and neglect of inmates, even to the point of death. Plus, while we, ahem, shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, I’m not immediately sure why cowboy hats should be a thing in Wisconsin. Is this standard issue or does Clarke just wear it because he’s the “Sheriff?” This is the Midwest, not the Wild West.

We like to subscribe to the black-and-white narrative in the United States of America that all police are of exemplary character and, conversely, that all people behind bars are deserving of their fate because of some character defect. The reality, of course, is much more complicated, and as literal issues of black and white go, matters of race factor heavily into why. The seemingly never-ending tally of black suspects being murdered at the hands of police despite relatively minor offenses (see also “driving while black”) demands accountability of the individual officers responsible for the escalations that lead to these deaths as well as that of the departments which assign and train these arms of the force. Racial profiling and disproportionate apprehension/sentencing of people of color are critical to understanding the systemic racism inherent in our modern-day prison-industrial complex. Joe Arpaio’s pardoning at the hands of Donald Trump was a symbolic gesture, but this is not to say it doesn’t resonate deeply with Americans of differing demographics and ideologies. It is basically the President of the United States thumbing his nose at Latinos, liberals, and those who would reject a “tough love” approach to law enforcement in this country, and pouring more kerosene on the Republican Party’s burning bridge between white America and people of color. It sets a terrible precedent, and should not be sanctioned by neither the left nor the right in the name of common decency.

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