In 2009, an unauthorized immigrant from Mexico City named Sandra Figueroa was arrested by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies during a raid of a Phoenix car wash. Along with her husband, Carlos, Figueroa was charged with a state felony tied to working with bogus papers.
The two spent several months in separate jails overseen by the Toughest Sheriff in America—“Sheriff Joe” Arpaio, the subject of an exhaustive and damning Justice Department civil-rights probe. It paints him as a vindictive racist who has imbued his jails and police operations with a culture of unconstitutional cruelty.
The report released Thursday in Phoenix by Thomas Perez, the chief of DOJ’s civil-rights division, details patterns of discrimination and retaliation that hark back to the pre-civil-rights-era South. An expert called the findings “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he had ever personally observed in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature,” Perez told reporters.
Sandra Figueroa says she knows that culture of cruelty only too well. While in Arpaio’s custody, Figueroa says, she was repeatedly molested by a female jail guard.
The mother of two American kids, Figueroa said she silently put up with the guard’s inappropriate touches because she feared retribution if she complained. (Because she never filed a complaint, the Sheriff’s Office told me in 2009, there could be no comment on her case.) Countless others I’ve interviewed since 2008 recalled stories of immigrant abuse at the hands of the sheriff’s office.
Already weakened by allegations that he botched hundreds of sex-abuse investigations, and abused his power by arresting or filing baseless complaints against those who spoke up against him, Arpaio this week faced mounting calls for his resignation. In the wake of the release of the DOJ probe, his office was virtually emasculated by the Department of Homeland Security, which has withdrawn funds for one of his favorite activities—checking the immigration status of Latinos already in his jails.
But at 79, Arpaio remains outwardly defiant. Grimfaced, he told reporters today he didn’t do anything wrong. He’s not going to change the way he operates just because of the DOJ probe.
The Justice Department’s civil-rights investigation began in 2008, after allegations of racial profiling stemming from Arpaio’s “crime suppression sweeps.” During these expensive two-day show busts, deputies descended all at once on heavily Hispanic communities in unmarked black SUVs, on foot, in helicopters, on horseback. Latinos were rounded up and taken to a “command center,” where Arpaio, cheered on by conservative retirees, skinheads, and old bikers, would give press conferences.
“Let me tell you something, and I’m not bragging,” he once told me, “I’m so high-profile I went from 98 percent to probably 99 percent name identification … You know, sometimes I understand how a movie star feels, or a celebrity.”
At first the raids cemented his celebrity, but by 2009 he seemed bothered by the Justice Department probe. I followed Arpaio around as I reported my book about the immigration nightmare in Phoenix. At one rally, in Sun City, a mostly white, mostly conservative retirement community, Arpaio instilled palpable fear in the oldsters by blaming Mexican immigrants for crime, swine flu, and stealing jobs. He ranted about the Justice Department probe, called it political, and told the audience: “If I don’t have your support, they will eat me up and spit me out.”
He’s a seemingly insecure guy, often accused of bullying. Before he became sheriff in 1993, he was a cop in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas before he went on to a career in the Drug Enforcement Administration. He retired in 1982, dabbled in his wife’s travel agency, then ran for sheriff in 1992.
At the DEA, he told me, he was instrumental in catching the so-called French Connection. Some who worked with him at the DEA derided his braggadocio and called him “Nickel Bag Joe”—because he always went after the two-bit dealers instead of the drug lords. (He attributes the moniker to sour grapes and professional jealousy.)
Arpaio’s critics, and now the DOJ, point to a pattern of abuse of the disenfranchised and voiceless who can’t fight back—jail inmates and unauthorized immigrants forced to wear pink skivvies and live in tents.
He denies any abuse.
Sheriff Joe also denies that his raids were political, and has long said he’s being targeted because he’s the only guy enforcing immigration law.
Arpaio was born 79 years ago in Springfield, Mass. He told me several times his mother died giving birth to him, and on his birthday in 2009 he tweeted: My birthday is always a day of reflection for me as some of you may know, it is also the day my mother passed. He spent a lot of his early childhood living with relatives while his father, an Italian immigrant, worked in a grocery store. As a kid, he walked a mile to a movie house called The Gardens, where he saw Flash Gordon, Batman, The Lone Ranger and Gene Autry.
“I used to go to the cowboy movies,” he told me once, “and I used to see the sheriff swear-in private businesspeople and say, ‘Hey go after the horse thieves,’ and so they went after the horse thieves. They used to hang them before they got back to jail, but that’s another issue. So [after becoming sheriff] I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going to build up my posse.’”
Now he’s got the largest posse (mostly elderly white retirees) in the United States. To his regular posse, he added an “Illegal Immigration Posse” and a “Cold Case Posse” to look into President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
The posse members were often present at the sensational immigration raids, directing traffic and riding along with deputies. The DOJ says Latinos were four to nine times more likely to be stopped than non-Latinos.
Perez told reporters that the Justice Department hopes to bring Sheriff Joe and his department up to constitutional snuff by inviting Latinos and others to the table. But if the sheriff doesn’t cooperate, “litigation” is possible soon.
In the meantime, a DOJ criminal investigation of Arpaio’s alleged abuses of power—attacking political enemies with arrest warrants and baseless accusations—is ongoing.
The DOJ announcement “validates what the community has been saying” for years, says Arpaio’s nemesis, Rep. Raul Grijalva. “This isn’t about rejoicing, it’s about pushing harder” for Arpaio’s ouster, he said in an interview.
Sandra Figueroa feels some measure of validation in the wake of the DOJ revelations. It’s likely that if she had filed a complaint in Spanish against the molesting guard, nothing would have happened. The DOJ report says jailers frequently rejected grievances written in Spanish.
The damage of the jailhouse sexual abuse lingers, and it is too late to change what happened, she said. She hopes fervently, though, that Arpaio’s reign of terror will end so that other women won’t be subjected to the same nightmare.