Current Affairs is


and depends entirely on YOUR support.

Can you help?

Subscribe from 16 cents a day ($5 per month)

Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Wait, Do People Actually Know Just How Evil This Man Is?

Joe Arpaio’s reign was two decades of intimidation, cruelty, and abuses of power…

If you are a Trump supporter, the president has just pardoned “America’s toughest sheriff,” a man who was willing to fight illegal immigration using any means at his disposal. If you are a liberal, Trump has pardoned a despicable racist, a man who spent decades casually violating the civil liberties of Latinos. And if you are a balanced and neutral news organization, Trump has pardoned a “controversial” sheriff who faced “accusations of abuse” and “defied a court order.” These are the terms on which the debate about Arpaio is had: is he a vindictive bigot who neglected his prisoners or a steely lawman who dared to enforce immigration policy when the Feds wouldn’t? (Perhaps we’ll just call him “polarizing.”)

But none of these perspectives actually capture the full truth about Joe Arpaio. And I am worried that even those who detest Trump and are appalled by this pardon do not entirely appreciate the depth of Arpaio’s evil, or understand quite how indefensible what Donald Trump just has done is. Frankly I think even Trump may not fully realize the extent of the wrongdoing that he has just signaled his approval of. And I think it’s very important to be clear: the things Joe Arpaio is nationally infamous for, the immigration crackdown and the tent city, these are only the beginning. The word “racist” isn’t enough. The word “abusive” isn’t enough. Joe Arpaio’s actions over the course of his time in office were monstrous and sickening. As Arpaio’s officers were harassing, detaining, and beating citizens and non-citizens alike, with jail employees routinely calling inmates “wetbacks” or leaving them to die on the floor, Arpaio let hundreds of serious sexual abuse cases go uninvestigated, in one case resulting in a child being continually raped. He was not just a “tough” sheriff, but a cruel and incompetent one, faking clearance reports for serious crimes while abusing the power of his office to arrest and intimidate journalists, judges, and county officials. Some of Arpaio’s acts bordered on the psychopathic: in a deranged re-election plot, Arpaio oversaw a scheme to pay someone to attempt to assassinate him, even supplying the man with bomb-making materials, so that he could entrap the fake “assassin” and send him to prison, ruining the hapless man’s life. Arpaio treated the Constitution with contempt, inflicting what the Mayor of Phoenix called a “reign of terror” upon the city’s Latino community. Anybody with a hint of a conscience should be revolted by both Arpaio’s record and Trump’s pardon.

Marty Atencio was a third-generation military veteran who had served in the Gulf War. Upon returning to civilian life, Atencio would struggle for years with schizophrenia and homelessness. In 2011, he was arrested for “aggressive” behavior outside a convenience store and taken to the Maricopa County Jail. The arresting officer noted that Atencio seemed to be suffering from a mental illness, and when he arrived at the jail he appeared “off his rocker.” Atencio informed jail staff that he was having suicidal thoughts and was placed in an isolation cell. Later, according to a lawsuit filed against the Sheriff’s office, officers began to make fun of Atencio’s mental state, and when he refused an order to take his shoes off, closed in on Atencio and began beating and tasering him. They dragged Atencio’s unconscious body back to his cell, where he was stripped naked and left on the floor. His was found “covered with bruises, lacerations and puncture marks,” and would never regain consciousness. Atencio would be buried with full military honors, with Maricopa County having to cough up a large wrongful death settlement for his family.

During the more than two decades that Joe Arpaio served as sheriff of Maricopa County, overseeing the jail system, millions of dollars would be paid out in lawsuits over the deaths of inmates. In 1996, Scott Norberg died after being suffocated in one of Arpaio’s “restraint chairs,” after being descended on by “fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating [him].” They were, said an eyewitness inmate, “like a pack of dogs.” After the Sheriff’s Office was accused of discarding evidence in the case, including the deceased’s crushed larynx, his family received an $8 million settlement. In 2015, Felix Torres was pulled over on his bicycle for riding the wrong way up the street, and found to be in possession of drug paraphernalia. While in jail awaiting trial, he was taken to the County Medical Center for severe stomach pain. Though Torres said he had a history of ulcers, doctors decided he had a hernia, and gave him a drug not recommended for people with ulcers. After being returned to jail, Torres, “spent the next few days crying, writhing in pain, and begging guards to help him or take him to the hospital.” Torres began “banging on his cell door and asking for help,” but an officer told him “You’re bullshitting… go to sleep.” On the night he died, Torres asked multiple officers for help, telling them he was dying. “You’re fucking faking it,” one replied. Torres’s family would receive $1 million. (And while it should make no difference, we might bear in mind that at the time of his death, Felix Torres was an innocent man.)

Felix Torres was the latest in what the Phoenix New-Times had begun calling Joe Arpaio’s “parade of corpses,” with “endless” numbers of court cases over “needless deaths and injuries in the jails.” Arpaio refused to disclose the number of deaths in his facility, despite evidence that inmates were committing suicide at a rate that “dwarfed” other county jails.

But it was not just those who died in Arpaio’s jails that suffered. Everyone did, because Arpaio made clear he wanted them to. Even though most of the inmates were legally innocent, Arpaio called them “criminals” and thought up ever-more sadistic treatments for them. First, of course, were the infamous tents: inmates would be forced to live without air conditioning in the Arizona heat, which reached well above 110 degrees. (At one point it reached 145 within the tents, causing the inmates’ shoes to melt.) Even the showers provided no relief; they were kept near boiling temperature. Winter was somehow even worse: the tents were unheated, but Arpaio would not permit warm clothing, not even a jacket. A former inmate wrote in the Washington Post that it was “freezing, achingly cold,” and that detainees wrapped their extremities with plastic bags. “I was in so much pain,” he said, that even now he cannot be cold without being reminded of it. 

Arpaio instituted chain gangs, and boasted that he had the first all-female chain gangs, soon to be followed by juvenile chain gangs. He took away every small comfort that could possibly make life in such conditions tolerable: no coffee, no cigarettes, no newspapers, no television. (Sometimes he permitted The Weather Channel “so these morons will know how hot it’s going to be while they are working on my chain gangs.”) He fed inmates meals that cost as little as 15 cents each, and was proud of the fact that the food was rotten and contaminated. Only two meals were provided per day, leading some inmates to lose unhealthy amounts of weight (a federal court eventually ordered Arpaio to meet USDA requirements), and Arpaio imposed a bread-and-water diet on any detainee found committing an “unpatriotic act.”

Medical care for those who suffered from mental illness was “dangerously inadequate.” Arpaio “tortured inmates who were on psychotropic medication by locking them in unbearably hot solitary confinement cells.” Those with physical vulnerabilities were mistreated, too; a paraplegic had his neck broken by guards and a pregnant woman lost her baby after officers left her in her cell instead of taking her to the hospital. It even took a federal court order to ensure “functional and sanitary toilets and sinks, with toilet paper and soap.” (Take a moment to visualize what happens when an overcrowded group of people does not have access to any of these things.) Arpaio introduced a policy that only those who could prove they were U.S. citizens could visit family in jail, meaning detained immigrants could not see their spouses or children. (At one point, an interpreter and U.S. citizen who worked for the county was also prohibited from entering the facility, because he was a Latino who could not instantly produce paperwork showing his citizenship.) 

None of this served any purpose other than furthering Arpaio’s attempts to build a brand out of callousness. “Jails are intended to be punishment,” Arpaio said (although jail aren’t intended to be punishment, because most people in them haven’t been convicted of a crime yet), and he joked that the facility was his own personal “concentration camp,” dismissing all concerns as “civil rights crap.”

Everyone who Arpaio happened to arrest would be subjected to this regime of arbitrary abuse. But beginning in the 2000s, he made it his special mission to target unlawful immigrants. Arpaio dispatched his officers to prowl around looking for potential unauthorized aliens to haul in and stock his tent jail with, with few clear criteria for how one was to determine an “illegal” other than that they would be dark-skinned and speaking Spanish. The result was a massive pattern of unconstitutionally discriminatory policing, one that the Justice Department harshly condemned in a 2011 report. Under Arpaio there was “culture of disregard in MCSO for Latinos that starts at the top and pervades the organization,” and “jail employees frequently refer to Latinos as ‘wetbacks,’ ‘Mexican bitches,’ and ‘stupid Mexicans.’” (“Want to see the tent where all the Mexicans are?” Arpaio would ask reporters.) The Justice Department wrote that Arpaio “engages in racial profiling” and “has implemented practices that treat Latinos as if they are all undocumented, regardless of whether a legitimate factual basis exists to suspect that a person is undocumented,” failing to follow “basic policing protocols and without implementing any meaningful safeguards against discriminatory police practices.” Furthermore, Arpaio’s approach typically resulted in “the targeting and harassment of Latino drivers rather than the effective enforcement of immigration law,” meaning that it was just racist, without even accomplishing its stated objective. And Latinos who were U.S. citizens also had to live in fear of being suspected by Arpaio’s officers:

[A]n MCSO officer stopped a Latina woman – a citizen of the United States and five months pregnant at the time – as she pulled into her driveway. After she exited her car, the officer then insisted that she sit on the hood of the car. When she refused, the officer grabbed her arms, pulled them behind her back, and slammed her, stomach first, into the vehicle three times. He then dragged her to the patrol car and shoved her into the backseat. He left her in the patrol car for approximately 30 minutes without air conditioning. The MCSO officer ultimately issued a citation for failure to provide identification. This citation was later changed to failure to provide proof of insurance. The citation was resolved when the woman provided her proof of insurance to the local courts.

The woman’s experience was not atypical for that Latino community under Arpaio. 25-year-old Phoenix resident Noemí Romero recently told the New York Times of “dignified, hard-working people whose lives were ripped apart by Arpaio,” including Romero herself, who was swept up in a workplace raid and sent to jail for two months: “My experience was devastating to myself and my family… Arpaio’s people treated me like I was less than human.” Arpaio knew the kind of police state atmosphere he was creating, but didn’t care: “If they’re afraid to go to church, that’s good,” he said.

Eventually, the federal courts intervened and instructed Arpaio to stop. But he persisted, brazenly flouting the order, leading to the contempt charge for which he has now been pardoned. Instead of listening to the judge, Arpaio hired a private investigator to investigate the judge’s wife. Meanwhile, Arpaio continued to inflict misery on Hispanic Arizonans. And the heavy-handedness of the anti-immigrant tactics prevented Arpaio’s office from solving actual crimes in Hispanic areas, creating what the Justice Department called “a wall of distrust that has significantly compromised MCSO’s ability to provide police protection to Maricopa County’s Latino residents.”

This aspect of Arpaio’s tenure is often underappreciated. Many people, even those who hate Arpaio, may be inclined to believe that he saw immigration enforcement as part of his general “tough on crime” attitude. He was extreme in his approach to unlawful immigration, one might think, because he was extreme in his approach to all perceived illegality. But this is false. It’s important to understand that Joe Arpaio wasn’t tough on crime. In fact, one of the major scandals of his immigration crackdown was that he did it at the expense of conducting actual policing, letting serious crimes go uninvestigated as he consciously tried to generate national publicity over his harsh tactics against immigrants.

[Content warning: sexual abuse, rape]

In 2007, a mentally disabled 13-year-old named Sabrina Morrison was raped by her uncle, who then threatened her. Morrison disclosed the crime to a teacher, who called the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. But after the MCSO conducted a rape exam, Morrison recalled, “they said I wasn’t molested.” The officer told Morrison’s mother the same thing: “I was told to my face that there was no evidence of any trauma. No sexual assault. So I thought she was lying…” Afterwards, Sabrina’s uncle continued to rape her, eventually getting her pregnant. Meanwhile, the MCSO had sent the rape kit to the state crime lab. The lab found the presence of semen, and requested that the MCSO obtain  a blood sample from Sabrina’s uncle. But instead of acting, or even telling Sabrina or her mother the results, the MCSO simply made a note in the case file. It would not be until four years later that the Sheriff’s office reopened the case and arrested Sabrina’s uncle, who is now serving a multi-decade prison sentence. Maricopa County would pay the Morrisons $3.5 million over the failure.

If what happened to Sabrina Morrison had been an anomaly, one could plausibly have exonerated Arpaio himself. It is possible for a dedicated sheriff to be unaware of negligence in particular cases. But the Morrison case was apparently typical of how the MCSO treated sex abuse cases under Arpaio. A journalistic investigation—one that would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize—revealed that hundreds of reported sex crimes had gone uninvestigated by Arpaio’s office, many of which were child molestation cases. A review of 51 crime reports showed that 43 “had not been worked at all or had minimal follow-up conducted,” even though 90 percent had workable leads. The Arizona Republic found that the office “did not meet basic investigative standards like promptly following up with victims, doing early background checks on suspects, coordinating with other agencies and promptly presenting cases to prosecutors,” and that “the agency lost track of $600,000 to hire child-abuse investigators, and the money was never found.” The MCSO conducted an internal affairs investigation into its mishandling of sex crimes cases, but declined to release the findings, with Arpaio refusing to comment on them. “If there were any victims,” he said, he would apologize to them, while refusing to take any responsibility. But there were victims, and we even know their names.

The Justice Department described Arpaio’s record on sex crimes in stinging terms:

MCSO has failed… to adequately respond to reports of sexual violence, including allegations of rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of girls, thus exposing women and girls, who constitute the majority of victims of crimes of sexual violence in Maricopa County, to a disproportionate risk of physical and psychological harm. Faced with such an increase in crime and the risk of harm presented by unaddressed sexual assaults, a law enforcement agency ordinarily would be expected to prioritize more serious offenses, such as crimes of sexual violence, over less serious offenses, such as low-level immigration offenses.

But not only did Arpaio continue to focus on immigration over more serious crimes, he didn’t even seem particularly interested in more serious crimes, suggesting that he planned to “go after illegals, not the crime first.” As Arpaio shifted from stopping violent criminal offenses to rounding up random aliens, an investigation by the East Valley Tribune revealed that police “response times, arrest rates, investigations and other routine police work throughout Maricopa County have suffered.” Meanwhile, Arpaio’s MCSO fudged reports to make it appear as if they were clearing more cases than they actually were, with the Justice Department concluding that there was “an increase in violent crime in Maricopa County, and of homicides in particular, during the period of enhanced immigration enforcement.” Clint Bolick, a conservative who is now Associate Justice on the Arizona Supreme Court, released analyses showing that Arpaio was misleading the public about the degree to which his anti-immigration shift had damaged his ability to solve serious crimes. (Trump said Arpaio “has protected people from crimes and saved lives.” But this is precisely what he didn’t do, or at least what he could have done far more of if he hadn’t been busy doing the thing Trump pardoned him for.) 

Arpaio also appeared to spend much of his own time engaging in calculated publicity stunts, such as recruiting an anti-immigrant “posse” including celebrities like Steven Seagal, obtaining a big tank with his name on it, letting Steven Seagal drive said big tank into someone’s house—killing their puppy and bringing on a lawsuit, going on reality television, and deputizing Shaquille O’Neal. Thus Arpaio was not only America’s “toughest” sheriff, but America’s worst sheriff: incompetent, cruel, celebrity-obsessed and self-aggrandizing, and failing in his basic duty to protect the public from crime.

Arpaio did not spend his days entirely frivolously, though. He was deadly serious about one thing: using his power to retaliate against anybody who criticized him. Infamously, after a critical report on him had appeared in the Phoenix New-Times, Arpaio had his deputies stage late-night raids on the homes of the paper’s publishers, arresting them in front of their families. When the county Board of Supervisors cut Arpaio’s budget, Arpaio and the county attorney conspired to indict board members on dozens of bogus felony charges as an “anti-corruption initiative.” An official who later reviewed the cases against the officials concluded that the “record is littered with behavior so egregious that a reasonable person’s sense of fairness, honesty and integrity would be offended.” The scheme was so transparent that the county attorney ended up getting disbarred over it (and the board members ended up—in a familiar pattern—having to be paid multi-million dollar settlements). As an elected official, however, Arpaio was accountable only to the majority of voters, who continued to re-elect him until they felt the lawsuits had piled up to the point of absurdity.

Arpaio’s methods were often simply those of the caudillo or gangster. When the wife of the mayor of Mesa criticized Arpaio, he immediately told a deputy: “We gotta raid Mesa again.” When the mayor of Guadalupe, one of the poorest cities in America, criticized Arpaio for an immigration raid in which he “descended on the town with multiple ‘command centers,’ approximately 100 deputies, and a helicopter,” Arpaio canceled the town’s policing services. When judges ruled against him, he filed racketeering lawsuits against them. When critical comments were made about Arpaio during the public-comment section of a board of supervisors meeting, audience members who applauded were arrested. He would even go after other jurisdictions’ police chiefs, should they dare to cross him:

In 2008, a series of crime sweeps by Arpaio’s officers led to public protests in Mesa over harassment and racial profiling. To prevent Arpaio from sending officers to confront the protesters, as he had done in other towns, Mesa police chief George Gascón cordoned off the protesters and invited free-speech lawyers to represent them. Infuriated, Arpaio responded by conducting a late-night raid on the Mesa City Hall, ostensibly looking for illegal immigrants. He arrested a handful of janitors, all of whom turned out to be documented workers – and then raided Gascón’s police station to obtain the workers’ computer files under the suspicion that their papers were invalid.

Arpaio’s regime was both incompetent and criminal, then. By the end, settlements over “civil rights violations, conspiracy, false arrest, and malicious prosecution” had cost the county $92 million in court settlements and legal fees. Members of his own department were conceding that MSCO officers had “willfully and intentionally committed criminal acts by attempting to obstruct justice, tamper with witnesses, and destroy evidence.” Arpaio even promoted many of the officers who were known to have been involved in abusive practices.

But possibly the most outlandish and deranged scandal surrounding the MSCO was the story of James Saville. Saville was a “poor and confused” teenager arrested in 1999 for allegedly plotting to assassinate Arpaio. Saville, Arpaio said, had been building a bomb to kill the sheriff. Arpaio was about to be up for re-election, and the foiled assassination plot was a sensational source of media coverage, with local TV news broadcasting “images of gun-wielding deputies swooping into a parking lot and taking a bewildered and unarmed Saville into custody.”

Saville had never been an assassin, though. A jury later heard testimony that “it was the sheriff’s money that purchased the bomb parts, and an undercover officer who drove Saville around to buy the parts.” Saville had simply been “the perfect stooge for yet another Joe Arpaio publicity stunt,” a dupe who had been lured by the promise of receiving several thousand dollars. But while the MCSO had concocted the plot itself, the charges against Saville were very real. He spent four years in jail and faced more than 20 years in prison if convicted. Ultimately, the charges were dropped, and the county spent $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Saville over his entrapment. It’s hard to find words to describe what Arpaio did here. His deputies tried to bribe and cajole a broke teenager into building a bomb for them, so that Sheriff Joe could send him off to prison for decades and get a few more minutes of coverage for “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”

The evidence is conclusive: Joe Arpaio is a man who doesn’t care in the least how much pain he causes other people, innocent or guilty. He appears to have been like this from his earliest days as a policeman, and in his autobiography “extolled the bone-crushing properties of his police-issued blackjack and the reliability of his nightstick” bragging of “us[ing] both without hesitation and whenever necessary, which was often.” But Arpaio isn’t just brutal. He’s also inept and corrupt. He shouldn’t ever have held any public office, let alone be re-elected half-a-dozen times as sheriff of one of America’s most populous counties.

What actually does shock me is how many people put up with Joe Arpaio, or have failed to acknowledge the extent of his misdeeds. The conservatives who embraced Arpaio, of course, showed that their professed concern with crime prevention and the rule of law is purely rhetorical.“It’s amazing to me that so-called conservatives will look the other way when someone has abused the power of government in the most extreme fashion,” said a Republican former Arizona Attorney General. But even Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien invited him on their shows, where they cracked jokes with him. (“I have great respect for any man who wears a 45 caliber tie clip,” Colbert’s character observed of the golden handgun Arpaio wears.) Janet Napolitano had a disgracefully cordial relationship with Arpaio during her time as U.S. Attorney for Arizona. After Arpaio was accused of brutality, she held a “friendly press conference” with him, where she spent time  “trading compliments with the sheriff.” Arpaio then recorded a campaign ad for Napolitano. When she became Obama’s DHS secretary, Napolitano’s office told The New Yorker that “ending Homeland Security’s partnership with Arpaio is not under consideration” even after the racist policing practices had been so well-documented.

It really does seem as if people do not quite appreciate just how evil Joe Arpaio truly is. If they did, this pardon would not just be ill-advised, it would be toxic. There would be no difference of opinion. As it is, however, Arpaio remains “controversial”: some say he’s a bigot, some say he’s a righteous vigilante. But what people need to say is the truth, which is that Joe Arpaio is not only a bigot, but a vicious sadist who abused his power more than perhaps anyone else to hold public office in the United States during the 21st century.

More In: Criminal Punishment

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A wonderful spring issue touching on important issues such as child liberation, whether humans really love animals, why Puerto Rico's political status remains a problem, what Islamic finance can teach us, and how 'terrorism' has become a shape-shifting word. Welcome to the Manos-Fair, and enjoy Luxury British Pants, among other delightful amusements!

The Latest From Current Affairs