Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio uncharacteristically contrite in contempt hearing

'America's toughest sheriff,' Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., loses his bravado in federal court

For decades, he's been the tough-talking lawman of Maricopa County.

Brash and defiant, his tactics controversial, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has bowed to no one — including President Obama — becoming a one-man crusade against illegal immigration, always doing things his way. Other than the voters who repeatedly returned him to office, to hell with everyone else.

But in a downtown federal courtroom this week, the bravado was all but gone, leaving the 83-year-old grandfather and grocer's son, who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff," looking more like a humble and weary retiree.

There seem to be two Joe Arpaios — the one wearing the badge, leading one of the nation's largest law-enforcement agencies — and the quiet, almost deferential man who this week sat surrounded by a team of lawyers as he faced accusations of contempt in a case involving alleged racial profiling by his department.

On the stand Arpaio faced grueling cross-examination, and was often reduced to one-word responses or falling back on a faulty memory. Sometimes he contritely admitted failing to carry out the judge's orders.

First elected in 1992, Arpaio quickly built a reputation for unconventional law enforcement tactics. He once housed inmates in outdoor tents, clothed them in pink underwear and served them discolored green and blue meat — safe, but unsuitable for sale to the public.

He later pronounced Obama's birth certificate to be fraudulent. In 2000 he admitted housing dogs and cats — held as evidence in animal-abuse cases — in air-conditioned cells while 1,400 prisoners were sweating out Arizona's blistering summer in his uncooled tent city.

"I've got inmates cleaning up the crap," Arpaio said, responding to complaints about the program. "That's the way the ball bounces."

But on Thursday the sheriff was on the defense. He admitted under oath that his former lawyer had authorized a secret investigation of the wife of U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow, the one presiding over the contempt-of-court case, perched on the bench just a few feet away from Arpaio.

"Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?" the judge asked.

"We weren't investigating you," Arpaio responded. "We were investigating some comments that came to our attention."

Snow was trying to ascertain whether Arpaio broke the law in failing to carry out a 2011 court order to refrain from bias against minorities. Snow ruled that Arpaio's 700-deputy force had racially profiled Latino drivers, unreasonably detaining them after traffic stops during his aggressive immigration patrols.

If the judge finds the department in contempt after this week's civil proceeding, a trial will be set and Arpaio and his lieutenants could face jail time.

The sheriff grasped the severity of the moment.

"I have a deep respect for the courts," he said on the stand Thursday. "It really hurts me … after 55 years to be in this position. I want to apologize to the judge. I should have known more about these court orders that slipped through the cracks."

The about-face has stunned many here. "He's been noticeably less aggressive in court this week," said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, who credits Snow for blunting Arpaio's hard-edged style. "The judge reined him in."

Gone, she said, are the off-the-cuff statements. Arpaio's Twitter account has gone silent. "A few weeks ago, I saw him give a speech and I thought, wow. His media team is making sure that he's reading from prepared statements. That's amazing."

On Friday, Arpaio slouched in a chair and looked on from the defense table as Chief Deputy Gerard Sheridan, his second-in-command, faced insistent questions from government prosecutors about how the department collected videotapes of deputies on patrol, which the government said were crucial to the case.

At times, the courtroom tensed as Sheridan insisted that his agency did not purposely stall on the court's demand to collect tapes of officers making traffic stops.

"First of all," Sheridan said at one point during pointed questioning by ACLU lawyer Cecillia Wang, "be careful of calling me a liar."

Snow had his own testy moments. At the close of the morning, he complained to Arpaio's lawyers that he had yet to receive documents he had ordered two months ago.

"I am going to require that those documents be delivered," he said. "I'm not going to put up with it anymore."

On Friday, the court was nearly filled to capacity as Phoenix-area residents came to watch the latest Joe Arpaio drama.

Retired electrician Ron Starkey said he was exasperated that Arpaio had cost the government $64 million in court costs to get to the bottom of whether his department engaged in racial profiling.

"I try to give everyone a break, but I'm just so sick and tired of Arpaio's showmanship and arrogance," he said, standing outside the courtroom. "At least this judge is standing up to demand that this sheriff be accountable for his actions. The guy thinks he's a law unto himself."

Nearby, Barb Heller waited in line for Friday's court proceedings.

"I think it's the feds who should be on trial for what they're doing to this man," Heller said. "Joe Arpaio has only done what the voters of his county hired him to do. That is not a crime."

The sheriff's critics say the new humility won't last long. Arpaio, who has served six consecutive terms, has said he's considering running for a seventh.

"I think the bravado will soon be back with a vengeance," Soler said. "He's a sheriff who is obsessed with his own image. He'll do whatever he has to do to get put back in office."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter: @jglionna

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