COLUMN ONE : A Maverick Lays Down the Law : Sheriff Joe Arpaio says his citizen posse and other high-profile programs show he’s tough on crime. Some Phoenix residents like his style. Others say he’s a publicity hound whose tactics may lead to trouble.
As a boy, Joe Arpaio lived for “oaters,” those Saturday matinees starring Hollywood’s singing cowboys who knew good from evil, and whose righteousness made local folks eager to ride with them on the dusty trail of outlaws.
Now, as sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, Arpaio has mobilized his own 2,200-member volunteer posse, 800 of whom strap on side arms and Stetsons to join deputies in crime-fighting blitzkriegs across the Phoenix valley.
To some critics, the mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class posse is profoundly amateurish, an armed and zealous band of lawyers, doctors, politicians, corporate executives and pot-bellied retirees out to savor the excitement of ridding their city of hell-raisers and criminals.
The sheriff says they are a tightly regulated group of men and women who--at minimal cost to taxpayers--help his understaffed and poorly funded office guard a citizenship longing for law and order. While armed, his posse members cannot draw their weapons unless their lives are threatened, or make an arrest without the supervision of a deputy.
The posse is but one example of the Wild West feel Arpaio has brought to the nation’s fifth largest sheriff’s department since he was elected in 1992.
Making good on a vow to “get tough on criminals,” the 62-year-old former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent has launched high-profile programs that have made him a hero to residents eager for iron-fisted crime fighting and an object of horrified fascination to civil rights advocates.
Even some law enforcement officials question the effectiveness of Arpaio’s strategies, which are high on public relations appeal but may do little to reduce crime in a region where the homicide rate is rising.
Besides creating the posse, Arpaio has solved a jail overcrowding problem by erecting canvas tents in a field surrounded by a concertina-wire fence.
So what if 1,000 inmates bake in 120-degree heat because the swamp coolers in the tents do not always work. And so what if they are not allowed to smoke, read pin-up magazines or watch movies. The way Arpaio figures it, jails are supposed to be hellholes. And besides, his $100,000 tent facility has saved the county $41 million in construction costs.
But critics, who include some former admirers, warn that Arpaio’s zealous approach would backfire should an inmate die of heat prostration or a bystander get shot by a posse member.
They also say that his confrontational tactics counter the trend in law enforcement across the nation known as community-based policing. That strategy, which encourages cooperation and friendly relations with residents, has been embraced by the Los Angeles Police Department, among others.
Dewey Stokes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 250,000 peace officers nationwide, derided the notion that a volunteer posse can do police work at no risk to the people they aim to protect.
“I have a concern about the professionalism of the posse, their training in arrest, search and seizure,” he said. “The thing he’s got to be concerned about is liability. Mistakes result in lawsuits.”
Louis Rhodes, head of the Phoenix chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, was more direct. “Arpaio thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt running to the top of San Juan Hill, and his posse are a bunch of junior G-men who want to be Batman,” Rhodes said. “It’s a comic-book version of crime fighting, and I’m worried that something bad will eventually happen--all the ingredients are there.”
Moreover, in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country--thanks to an influx of post-riot Southern Californians--critics say such simplistic approaches, however catchy for campaign slogans and media coverage, are not permanent solutions. Others speculate that Arpaio, who has broken a campaign promise to be a one-term sheriff by announcing plans to seek reelection in 1997, is orchestrating a future bid for higher office.
Tossing the gauntlet in his own version of “High Noon,” Arpaio says his critics are just “jealous . . . that I’m getting all the publicity.”
“But I’ve got a method to my madness of publicity: I want to send a message to the bad guys,” said Arpaio, who has appeared on more than two dozen radio and TV programs in the past month. “I want them to know that it is so bad in my jail that they won’t want to commit crimes here.”
That is a potent and popular message at a time when crime is the No. 1 concern here and across the nation. While some peg Arpaio, and his high-profile programs, as opportunistic pandering to the fears of the crowd, it is precisely what many merchants, politicians and residents want in this Western boom town.
“The sheriff is trying to throw a scare into criminals and there are some people here that could use a little bit of a scare,” said Gilbert Hernandez, 68, who lives in an unincorporated southwest section of the city the sheriff says is rife with crime. “I think he’s doing a good job.”
Phoenix lawyer Gary Klahr disagrees, saying that inmates in Arpaio’s cramped, brown tents are treated as “subhuman” even though “a lot of them are only beginning felons in work-furlough programs.”
“There is a potential for people dying out there,” Klahr said.
Under the county jail system’s work-furlough program, inmates assigned to tents are allowed to go to their jobs during the day but must return at night.
Gripes about heat and harsh living conditions in the tent facility are music to Arpaio’s ears.
“I want my jails to be a deterrent to crime and that’s why we went from R-rated movies to Donald Duck. Nobody liked Donald Duck, so I wiped all movies out,” Arpaio said with a self-satisfied smile during a tour of the facility.
Two dozen inmates mopped their steamy brows and tried to look alert when the man with a shiny six-point star on his chest suddenly marched into their sweltering tent and bellowed, “Why’s it so hot in here? You got a cooler, don’t you?”
“The cooler don’t work!” several inmates said in unison.
“How’s the bologna sandwiches?” Arpaio asked.
“Green!” they shouted.
In fact, the bologna can be green, red or blue on any given day. That’s because jail cold cuts are bought from a distributor who gives hefty discounts on discolored meat that, while safe to eat, is unsuitable for sale elsewhere.
Arpaio laughed aloud when another inmate chortled, “Hey, Sheriff, when you gonna be on television again?”
He told the inmate to watch TV the following night. “Eight p.m. NBC. Tom Brokaw,” he said.
None of Arpaio’s programs better displays his true character--his commitment to fighting crime, his loyalty to supporters, or his flamboyant style--than the posse, which counts Gov. Fife Symington among its members. Arpaio contends it has saved the county millions of dollars.
It costs taxpayers $240 to train a posse member to use a gun--a bargain when compared to the hours of free time the members devote to helping his 453 full-time deputies, Arpaio said.
So far, about 800 posse members have had the training to win permission to carry weapons on duty.
Bill Glenn, 61, a retired utility company worker, has undergone more than 150 hours of police training and spent $1,200 of his own money on leather utility belts, a pistol, uniforms and other items.
“My main reason for doing this is to take the load off a department that is short-handed in sworn deputies,” Glenn said after helping deputies handle a man caught with a half a pound of marijuana in his car. “Yep, I’m making my valley a little safer tonight.”
No one here doubts the commitment or courage of posse members such as Glenn, who once used pepper spray to prevent a suspect from slashing him with a broken bottle.
Problem is, so many prospective volunteers are applying that background checks have been delayed, and admission standards have dropped, according to an internal memorandum written by Sheriff’s Lt. Roy Reyer in March--a few days before Arpaio first unleashed his posse on prostitutes trolling downtown Phoenix’s scruffy Van Buren Street.
Reyer, who was transferred from a community relations position in Phoenix to a substation about 20 miles west of town shortly after his memo hit Arpaio’s desk, wrote that posse recruitment standards had fallen so low that members included “Rambos, Otis the town drunk, and a lot of washed-out cop wanna-bes.”
“In one instance, a new posse man was given the assignment of treasurer of the Operations Posse,” the memo said. “Over $5,000 of this posse’s funds were in his control. A background check of this individual later showed that he had an outstanding out-of-state warrant for fraud.”
Arpaio acknowledged that “as in any organization, there are a few bad apples in the posse.” But they are quickly identified and rejected, the sheriff said, dismissing most of Reyer’s accusations as “garbage.”
Never mind that several volunteers have been kicked off the posse for showing up intoxicated or packing concealed weapons at training sessions. Or that some deputies worry that overly zealous volunteers jeopardize bystanders and pose liability problems for the county.
For Arpaio, whose office is short 30 deputies and 130 detention officers, the posse is a practical response to rising crime in a county facing a severe budget deficit.
“Let’s say the county Board of Supervisors says, ‘Sorry, Sheriff, we just went bankrupt,’ ” said Arpaio, who earns $65,000 a year. “What do I have waiting in the weeds? A posse. I can still protect the public.”
The posse got a chance to sharpen its law enforcement skills during an intensive crackdown against shopping mall crime last Christmas, and in April during the sweep against prostitution on Van Buren Street.
The mall effort was a success. But the assault on prostitution was at best a stop-gap measure. While the deputies and posse members were patrolling the street, crime dropped by 91%. Van Buren merchants say it’s been climbing ever since they left.
Similar grumblings are being heard in southwest Phoenix, which Arpaio flooded in late June with 700 armed posse members, special tactics teams, canine units, helicopters, armored cars and support units.
The invasion, dubbed Operation Summer Heat, was aimed at clearing drug dealers and gang members from a largely low-income region dominated by cotton farms and auto wreckage firms.
Arpaio said the effort was justified because there have been seven murders in the region in the past five months. During the monthlong operation, he said, deputies and posse members interrogated 5,577 people and arrested 605 of them on charges ranging from drug possession to outstanding warrants. Many of those suspects were originally stopped for vehicle code violations.
That approach doesn’t wash with many residents who live and work in the targeted area. Among the dissenters is CeCe Maxwell, owner of a bar around the corner from Operation Summer Heat’s mobile command post.
“I think it’s stupid. Dumb. A total joke. Hogwash,” she said. “All they’re doing is stopping people for traffic violations. There are people out here without much money and who happen to have car problems, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad.”
Arpaio’s response: “Even if there was no crime, what’s wrong with going out there to deter crime before it happens?”
Such remarks have some people wondering whether Arpaio is just one more in a line of top cops who have raised questions about the office’s professionalism over the past decade.
Arpaio’s predecessor, Tom Agnos, lost his bid for reelection over accusations of flawed interrogation and evidence gathering in the massacre of six Buddhist monks, two young initiates and an elderly nun here in 1991. In that case, the sheriff’s office extracted four false confessions to the murders.
The so-called Tucson four were cleared of murder charges in late 1991 when two teen-agers told investigators they acted alone in killing the Buddhists during a botched robbery at the temple.
Agnos followed Dick Godbehere, who was criticized by federal authorities for “staging” a drug bust for the media in 1985.
Godbehere entered office on the heels of Jerry Hill, who lost a reelection bid in 1984 amid allegations of using his county car and filing travel expenses for a trip to New Mexico to marry his ninth wife.
“Most of our sheriffs lose reelection under a cloud,” Klahr said. “It’s all part of the strange history of Maricopa County sheriffs.”
Arpaio began his law enforcement career when he joined the Washington, D.C., Police Department in 1954. Four years later, he signed on with the DEA, where he spent 30 years as an agent and director of offices here and abroad.
Arpaio retired from federal law enforcement in 1982 as head of the DEA in Arizona, and he and his wife of 37 years, Ava, opened a travel agency in Phoenix. They have two grown children.
“With that background I became sheriff,” Arpaio said. “I’m the first Italian ever elected sheriff” (in the county). I’m the first ex-federal agent ever elected sheriff. I’m the oldest guy ever elected sheriff. And I’m probably the first East Coast guy ever elected sheriff in Arizona.”
Arpaio’s greatest challenge, critics say, will be to emerge from his first term unscathed and restore credibility to an office that has been dogged by controversy for years.
“Maybe I’ve been lucky, maybe the roof will cave in,” Arpaio said. “But I want to make a difference. If I fail, at least I gave it a shot.”
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