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The Tough Guy: Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio believes in making criminals do hard time in the desert heat.

June 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author

Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photo courtesy of Newscom/Splash News.

Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photo courtesy of Newscom/Splash News.
Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Photo courtesy of Newscom/Splash News.

At 75, Joe Arpaio is serving his fourth term as sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz. It's a job he's held for 15 years, much to the delight of the voting population in the Phoenix area and much to the dismay of politically correct, civil liberties advocates who characterize his policies as cruel and the man himself as a dangerous dinosaur.

Arpaio has earned the title "America's Toughest Sheriff" because he refuses to coddle inmates in the county jails. To save taxpayers' money, he cut inmate meals to twice per day serving surplus meat, including oxidized "green" bologna. To prevent inmates from being released due to jail overcrowding, he set up surplus military tents as an extension of the jails. To shame deadbeat parents, he published their photos and the amounts they owed on the department's Website.

An Army veteran, Arpaio began his career in law enforcement after the Korean War. He worked as a cop in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas; then he was hired by the DEA and served for 32 years in Turkey, Mexico, and Arizona.

In 1992, the outspoken Arpaio retired as the head of the DEA's Arizona office and ran for sheriff. Since then he has instituted a wide variety of programs, including block watches to report criminal activity; Holiday Mall Patrols maintained by an expanded volunteer posse program; and Project Lifeline, which provides cell phones to victims of domestic violence so they can call for help.

But outside of the Phoenix area, Arpaio is best known for issuing pink underwear to inmates (They were stealing the other stuff and selling it on the street.); banning smoking in county jails; instituting mandatory English classes for non-English-speaking inmates; removing weightlifting equipment from jails; and, of course, the tents.

No other measure taken by Arpaio has been more controversial than the tent cities. In 2003, inmates complained about the conditions in the tents where they were living in 110-degree heat. Arpaio famously replied: "It's 120 degrees in Iraq and our soldiers are living in tents, too. They also have to wear full battle gear, but they didn't commit any crimes. So shut your mouths!"

Associate Editor Dean Scoville, a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, recently spoke with Arpaio by phone, conducting an interview that covered his work, his attitudes toward crime and criminals, and the state of modern American law enforcement and politics.

POLICE: What would you say is your mission as sheriff?

My job is to run the jails. Our primary jurisdiction is the unincorporated areas and contract cities here in Maricopa County. There are 3,000 sheriffs across the country. I'm number two in the nation. I can't get by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. I can't get enough people in jail. We have about 10,000; LASD has about 25,000.

POLICE: Any aspirations of moving to Los Angeles and becoming number one?

Why would I want to go out to L.A.? Sheriff Baca makes like $300,000. I've got the second largest sheriff's office and make $88,000. I'm going on my fifth term and keep getting re-elected because I report to the people. That's some 3.8 million people that we know of. I make my own decisions—nobody can tell me what to do, other than the public. I don't report to any governor, bureaucrat, or politician. What's great about being the elected sheriff is that I'm not involved in all this politics and garbage that people play.

POLICE: Is that why you can implement the policies that make you "America's toughest sheriff?"

It's the World's toughest sheriff now, not just America.

POLICE: Sorry to sell you short.

If I had to report—like chiefs of police—to some mayor or city manager…I wouldn't take that job in a million years. The only reason I stay on this job is because I have the freedom to make my own decisions and live and die by them. Isn't that great for sheriffs to have authority?

POLICE: You're one of the most recognized law enforcement figures in the world. Do you ever get tired of the attention?

I was just on national television three hours ago talking about the National Guard and the border. I've been on at least 3,000 international profiles. I had six different people here last week from all different countries (Ireland, Australia, England, Africa). They keep coming and I keep talking.

People call me a "publicity hound." Well, you know what? I don't want to run a CIA operation. So if I put people in pink underwear and give them 1470s, I want everybody to know about it. So that's why I talk about it.

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