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President Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio of a criminal conviction Friday night, choosing the moment Hurricane Harvey was making landfall for an action that sent waves of outrage through the Hispanic, civil liberties and legal communities.
At a rally in Phoenix earlier this week, Trump had teased the possibility of a pardon for the notorious Arpaio, an early and outspoken supporter of Trump’s presidential campaign, who’d been convicted of criminal contempt last month for failing to obey a federal judge’s order to stop targeting Latinos on the basis of their suspected immigration status.
Still, the Friday night pardon brought surprise and outrage from many elected officials, civil rights advocates and, especially, Latino-Americans, who viewed Trump’s announcement as a clear endorsement of Arpaio’s unlawful crusade against undocumented immigrants.
Matched, perhaps, only by Trump in his insatiable desire for media attention, America’s self-described “toughest sheriff” is best known for his crusade against illegal immigration, which went beyond constitutional bounds. He was also the perpetrator of controversial publicity stunts, such as raiding a suspected cockfighting ring by sending a tank to crash the suspect’s home, killing his dog in the process—on television, with actor Steven Seagal tagging along for the ratings. He was an early convert to birtherism and after setting up a unit to look into it, announced his finding that President Obama’s birth certificate was a forgery.
But for immigrants and Latino residents of Maricopa County and throughout the country, Arpaio’s tenure as sheriff amounted to a 24-year reign of terror, during which he repeatedly ignored federal court orders to halt his department’s illegal and unconstitutional practices. The resulting lawsuits cost taxpayers nearly $70 million during his last eight years in office alone.
Arpaio thanked the president for the pardon in a tweet that sounded almost as if written by Trump himself, referring to his conviction as a “a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama justice department.” But the 85-year-old’s long history of legal troubles and accusations of racial bias began long before anyone had ever heard of Barack Obama.
Alleged Discrimination at the DEA
According to a 2012 profile of Arpaio by Rolling Stone, one year before his retirement from the Drug Enforcement Agency in 1982, Arpaio was sued for race and gender discrimination by Laura Garcia, a female investigator at the DEA’s Phoenix office. Though Garcia dropped the suit after switching jobs, she told Rolling Stone that Arpaio actively discriminated against Hispanic agents at the DEA.
“He’s not upholding the law as sheriff,” Garcia told the magazine in 2012. “He’s just harassing and doing what he’s always wanted to do to Hispanics.”
Tent City: ‘A Concentration Camp’
Among Arpaio’s most notorious ventures since he was first elected sheriff of Maricopa County in 1992 was the creation of Tent City: an un-air-conditioned outdoor jail housing inmates in old Army surplus tents, which Arpaio himself once described as “a concentration camp.”
As if it wasn’t enough to endure the oppressive Arizona heat from inside the canvas confines of Tent City—where temperatures climbed as high as 145 degrees one summer—Arpaio famously forced Tent City’s inmates, all of whom had been convicted of low-level, non-violent crimes such as DUIs, to wear pink underwear under their black and white striped uniforms and put them to work on chain gangs, digging up weeds and burying bodies at a nearby cemetery.
Arpaio proudly promoted—and campaigned on—the harsh policies imposed at Tent City, even offering group tours of his “internationally famous” outdoor jail. He claimed to save taxpayers money by serving inmates only two meals a day, restricting access to things like cigarettes, coffee, even salt and pepper, and charging for visits to the jail’s nurse. However, Arpaio’s cost-cutting tactics were described as inhumane by human rights advocates and resulted in a number of costly legal battles over alleged injuries, deaths, and other abuses against inmates at Tent City and other county jails. Under Arpaio’s leadership, Maricopa County jails lost their federal health accreditation for failing to meet national standards for inmate care.
In 2008, a federal judge deemed that the unsanitary conditions, insufficient food, medical care, and lack of supervision at Maricopa County jails violated the constitutional rights of pre-trial detainees.
Six years later, the same judge ruled that the county had failed to comply with orders to improve medical and mental health services at the jails.
Prosecuting Political Opponents
Outside his jails, Arpaio earned a reputation for abusing his power to target his political opponents, such as former Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who became the subject of a child molestation investigation (which ultimately resulted in no charges) after he criticized Arpaio’s raids on illegal immigrants. A wrongful arrest lawsuit by Maricopa County Supervisor and Arpaio critic Don Stapley cost the county $3.5 million in settlement fees.
In 2010, a superior court judge found that Arpaio “misused the power of his office to target members of the [county board of supervisors] for criminal investigation.” Two years earlier, a federal grand jury had launched a probe, along with an FBI investigation, of alleged criminal abuses of power by Arpaio, but the investigation was closed in 2012 without charges.
Questionable Campaign Tactics
In 2012 Arpaio’s reelection campaign committee was fined for election law violations.
Less than a decade earlier, a Maricopa County jury acquitted a young man named Jimmy Saville who’d been arrested in 1999 for attempting to kill Arpaio with a car bomb, finding that Arpaio had orchestrated the assassination attempt as a publicity stunt. The sheriff’s office previously denied any wrongdoing, but in 2008 the county reportedly paid Saville more than $1 million to settle an entrapment and wrongful arrest lawsuit.
Racial Profiling and Discriminatory Policing
More than anyone else, the primary target of Arpaio’s unlawful law enforcement tactics were Latino immigrants and citizens. For years, as hundreds of sex crimes, including child molestation cases, went uninvestigated, Arpaio regularly dispatched both sheriff’s deputies and members of volunteer “posses” to conduct immigration raids on Hispanic neighborhoods and worksites suspected of employing undocumented workers, resulting in hundreds of arrests that the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division ultimately deemed unconstitutional in 2015.
The Department of Justice and a federal court judge also both found that, under Arpaio’s leadership, Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies regularly engaged in racial profiling and unlawful traffic stops targeting Latino drivers. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security revoked Maricopa County’s authorization to identify and detain suspected undocumented immigrants under the federal 287(g) program, citing the department’s “discriminatory policing practices.”
“Discrimination undermines law enforcement and erodes the public trust,” then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a statement announcing the department’s decision to cut ties with Maricopa County. “DHS will not be a party to such practices.”
That same year, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow issued a temporary injunction, followed by a permanent court order in 2013, requiring Arpaio to stop detaining people without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing other than their perceived immigration status.
Last month, another federal court judge ruled that Arpaio had “willfully violated” Snow’s order, finding him in criminal contempt of court. The 85-year-old Arpaio, who was unseated in an election last fall, was facing a maximum sentence of six months in jail plus a fine when he received his presidential pardon Friday.
True to form, Arpaio celebrated his near-brush with justice with an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show and several tweets to thank his supporters — and to ask them for donations to his legal defense fund.
(Cover tile photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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