The Tough Guy: Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]

POLICE: Have you ever tried to convince other sheriffs to put their inmates in tents?

I tried to get [California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to come down here and visit the tents. [California is facing the prospect of releasing thousands of inmates because of overcrowding.] He never came.

But I've got the tents and we're building more. We're soon going to have 2,500 tents. It gets up to 140 degrees in the summer, and it gets down to 5 degrees in the winter. But I don't care that we don't have any air conditioners or anything like that.

There's a big vacancy sign outside of our tents. It means that we'll never release people early and never [be so crowded that we can't take more.] We'll take as many as we can get.

POLICE: You've been criticized for having liberal force and pursuit policies. You let your deputies chase suspects to the ends of the earth and, if they have to kick ass and take names—more power to them. Don't you worry about liability and lawsuits?

Look, I get sued. It just comes with the job, and I don't worry about it anymore than I worry about going to the toilet. If you don't do nothing, you're never gong to get sued.

Yeah, I let my guys pursue, and I don't worry about it. That's the trouble with a lot of law enforcement [administrators]: They're afraid to do anything. They're afraid of lawsuits, afraid of this, afraid of that. Their poor cops can't do anything. They're afraid of video cameras, they're trying to subdue people and everybody's taking pictures. Sometimes you're not backed up [by your agency]. We're living in a tough age right now for cops. That's why it's great to be elected.

When I was a cop in Washington, I walked the black beat for four years. I had my night stick and a .38. We didn't have all these Glocks, we just took care of business on our beat. Of course, I'd probably be in jail now if I did what we did back then, today. It's not that I did anything illegal, mind you. But back then if a guy resisted, we took necessary action to lock him up. Things have changed now, and not for the better.

POLICE: Today, public reaction to police use of force is inflamed by self-proclaimed community activists and people who have the time to go out and clamor. They get the ears of government officials, the sheriff, lawyers, and basically extort compliance from elected law enforcement officials. Do you ever let community activists hamstring your own operations?

I've worked hard the last 14 years as sheriff. I worked 14 hours a day. I averaged two speeches a day. So the people in my county—3.8 million people—know me. You ask anybody here, and they're gonna know who their sheriff is. In fact, you ask anybody in the United States, or ask anyone overseas, I guarantee nine out of 10 will know who's sheriff in Maricopa County. I've worked hard for that.

I say this to make a point: If you work hard, people will support you, they'll trust you. And I offer my polls and popularity as evidence of that fact. I used to hover around 70 or 80 percent. Some 1.5 million people have come through the jails since I've been sheriff. I suspect they won't vote for me—maybe they will—but the point is if you build up a reputation, sometimes you can get by with this and fight everybody, which I do. I know I've got the support of the people. I don't have to go to bed with any politician or bureaucrat.

And I've been blasted by the press, but I survive. I've got the tents out in 140-degree heat. The press attacks me for that. They also attack me for our meals. It costs more to feed our dogs; it's only 35 cents to feed an inmate. What does the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department get charged? I bet it's a buck-and-a-half for a meal. I took away a meal. We only give them a bologna sandwich and a hot meal at night. That's only 35 cents a day to feed an inmate. I make those decisions.[PAGEBREAK]

POLICE: You've been the target of scathing criticism from certain prison watch groups, the American Civil Liberties Union…How does that feel?

I love it when they criticize me. Why? Because my polls go higher. I love it when I get sued by a civil rights lawyer, because my polls go up.

What do you think are the biggest obstacles facing law enforcement today?

The bureaucracy. The pressures. The politics. Why am I the only guy locking up smugglers and the smugglees in the whole state of Arizona? Under a new law it's a felony. Why am I the only guy doing it? Why isn't everybody doing it?

California should thank me. Because out of the 450 [illegal aliens] we arrested, 75 percent were going to California. They were just stupid enough to cross the Maricopa County line, so they're in jail. They were going to California. But that "Terminator" has never called me and said, "Thank you." Nobody in California says, "Thank you for locking up these illegals before they get here."

POLICE: What would you like to see most changed in the law enforcement community?

I would like to see law enforcement go back to the way it was.

Although we've gone high tech and have cars with air conditioning, I would like to see the cops get back on the street and get closer to the people so they can be backed up. I'd like to see cops being backed up [by the public and their commanders]. I back up my deputies when they act in good faith.

I remember when I was on Bill Maher's TV show the first time. A couple of deputies—I think it was in San Bernardino—were following two guys and they were caught on camera subduing them and their sheriff almost chastised these guys.

Well, I was on national TV blasting Bill Maher [for criticizing the deputies]. You know, you've got to do the investigation. You don't judge someone in the preliminary investigation. Well, he said, it was on TV, we caught it on video. Well, you can't believe everything you see on TV. You've got to give the guys a chance. So I think we've got to get back to the old days where we used to chase people and not worry about lawsuits.

I have confidence in my deputies. I back them up. I purposely changed the color of the cars to black and gold so that everybody will know it's a deputy sheriff. I want the people to know that there's a sheriff in town.

The police have a tough job. You've got to back up your cops. You've got to back them up when they act in good faith. Now if they're crooks or something, you put them in jail. But if they're trying to do their job, and you sell them down the river for politics or from heat from the press, that's not right.

POLICE: Let's talk about your personal background for a moment. You're the son of immigrants?

I'm all Italian; my mother and father came here legally from Italy.

POLICE: I'm going to assume Arpaio is a legitimate surname and not an Ellis Island casualty, correct?

Well, you know, it's interesting you said that. My mother and father came here through Ellis Island. However, the stupid immigration officer made an "o" instead of an "a," so really my name is Arpaia. They came from Naples, my mother and father.

POLICE: I'm going to give you a topic and have you respond with how you feel about the matter, or what you'd do about it. Let's start with: Citizen volunteers?

We're going to keep taking them in. We have a posse of 3,000. If I bring the people in, they have guns. I use the posse and they go round up hookers, or whatever. The posse is a great auxiliary, and they do a great job. They have the authority under the elected sheriff and will not take advantage of that. They don't just go around and search and arrest.

POLICE: That's probably one of the most underutilized resources in the law enforcement community.

The sheriffs have a right to swear in people and put them to work. We train them; so why not use them? I've got helicopters and vehicles and 57 different posses.

POLICE: Sexual predators?

We've got to crack down on that nationwide. Here we have a computer crime team.

POLICE: Corrupt officials?

We have a special corruption unit working with the county attorney. My deputies are zeroing in on any corrupt officials. Isn't it great to be elected?

POLICE: Capital punishment?

I believe in capital punishment, except it takes too long. We should be able to do it within five years [and make sure they did it] with DNA analysis. This shit of 20 years…There's no impact if you execute them in 20 or 25 years. So do it quick if you're gonna do it.

POLICE: What's next for Sheriff Arpaio?

I'm going to run again. My first book is "America's Toughest Sheriff." The next one is gonna be "America's Oldest Sheriff," so I'm running again.

I've got new ideas. I do some fluff stuff. For example, we're having all of the inmates sing, so we're having Inmate Idol instead of "American Idol." We've got a lot of educational programs, too. I just started our own radio show because I took away all of their radios and TVs. They have nothing in the jail—no radio, no TV, no movies, no porno. I took all of that away.

I even took away their sugar, their coffee, their salt. I should get the Heart Association award of the year. The only thing I left was the mustard. And when I need some press, I'll take that away.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
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