Joe Arpaio, a sheriff in Arizona, has used headline-grabbing tactics to become a hero to many Americans, but he is on trial over his treatment of Latinos.
He created the nation’s first female chain gang; issued pink socks and underwear to the men held in the county’s jails; and housed inmates in refurbished Korean War tents under the blazing desert sun, then cut the salt and pepper out of their two meals a day. He also sent a posse to Hawaii to check on President Obama’s birth certificate, earning staunch supporters and vociferous opponents along the way.
But now his penchant for public relations coups, each seemingly intended to outdo the last, threatens to become one of his greatest liabilities.
Sheriff Arpaio and his office are on trial in a federal class-action lawsuit here, accused of singling out Latinos, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, for stops, questioning and detention during large-scale policing operations. The Justice Department has sued him on the same grounds, alleging discriminatory practices that extend from the streets to the jails.
On the stand last week, he had to confront past statements to the news media: Is it indeed “an honor” to be compared to the Ku Klux Klan, as he once told the TV anchor Lou Dobbs? Is the appearance of having “just came from another country” reason enough to target a person for arrest, as he said to the talk show host Glenn Beck?
“Sheriff,” Stanley Young, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, asked him, “which is the truth — what you say here in court, or what you say to audiences who want to hear you talk?”
His news releases often carry headlines written in bold red letters. “Eight more illegal aliens detained. Among them a 3-year-old,” a recent one read. He uses a Smith Corona typewriter to keep records of every interview he has given; a stack of paper thicker than an encyclopedia fills a deep drawer in his desk. (There were 13 news organizations, from as far away as Russia and Japan, listed for June 25, when the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling on Arizona’s immigration law.)
Some of Sheriff Arpaio’s opponents here say the news media has a complicit relationship with him, frequently promoting the tough-guy and regular-guy images he has worked hard to project. On his birthday in June, he raced reporters on go-carts (“to show I could do it,” he said) while his deputies raided an auto parts store, arresting four workers on charges of using fraudulent Social Security numbers on their job applications. Both events made the evening news.
Antonio Bustamante, a civil rights lawyer who is among his most vociferous critics, said Sheriff Arapaio is often portrayed as a “kind of quixotic and entertaining figure,” at times a caricature, at others a key player in the national immigration debate.
“I think he’s a joke in every way,” though a dangerous one, Mr. Bustamante said. “As an elected official, he has demonstrated a contempt for restrictions, oversight and accountability that endures to this day.”
He has been a man of sometimes contradictory action. In 2005, he signed off on the arrest of an ex-Army reservist who had held at gunpoint seven men thought to have entered the country illegally from Mexico; the men were not detained. Months later, he formed a unit dedicated to arresting smugglers and the immigrants whom they brought here, under a state law that turned both activities into felonies.
Since then, illegal immigration has been a prime focus for Sheriff Arpaio. His raids — in businesses suspected of employing illegal immigrants, as well as in neighborhoods, parking lots and establishments where they might congregate — are matters of contention in the federal trial, which is scheduled to end Thursday. There is no jury, and there are no claims for monetary damages, just corrective actions.