‘Toughest Sheriff in America’ Battles to Keep His Job in Arizona

Critics are citing Joe Arpaio’s botched sex-crimes investigations in a bid to force him out. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Ross D. Franklin / AP Photo

On Dec. 5, Rep. Raul Grijalva sipped coffee with staffers in Tucson and discussed a recently published Associated Press story detailing how Joe Arpaio, the Toughest Sheriff in America, bungled or ignored sex-crime investigations in a small, heavily Hispanic town west of Phoenix.

Grijalva knew the botched sex-crime investigation story was already three years old. It had first surfaced in a Pulitzer Prize-winning local series in 2008. As recently as May, The Arizona Republic detailed Arpaio’s sex-crime investigation problem following an internal probe alleging more than 400 sex-crime reports were ignored or mishandled. But in the wake of allegations that former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky molested vulnerable boys while officials turned a blind eye, the Arizona sex-crime story finally gained traction.

Grijalva, a Democrat who had long called for Arpaio’s resignation, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview he decided over his Monday morning coffee to publicly “renew” his call for the sheriff to call it quits. Then he’d sit back and see where the chips fell.

For years, Grijalva and a few other local politicos had criticized Arpaio for promoting his political persona while allegedly violating human rights of two “politically expendable” groups—immigrants and pink-underwear-clad jail inmates.

Grijalva and other Arizona politicos, such as state Rep. Ruben Gallego, have long said Arpaio failed the communities he policed by devoting resources to “investigating his own political enemies,” misspending $100 million, and otherwise abusing his power. They supported civil and criminal Department of Justice investigations of Sheriff Joe, but those investigations have dragged on for years.

Grijalva reasoned that “people regardless of their views on immigration” would pay more attention to Arpaio’s pattern of “stark dereliction of duty” if they learned his department bungled scores of sex-crimes investigations in El Mirage, a small community west of Phoenix where many unauthorized migrants lived.

In the week since Grijalva “renewed” his call for Arpaio’s resignation, Arizona’s Republican senators John McCain and Jon Kyl cautiously jumped on the anti-Arpaio bandwagon. Several Arizona legislators called for Sheriff Joe’s resignation. And local activists, fresh off the victorious recall election that unseated Russell Pearce, the once-powerful Republican state senator who sponsored Arizona’s tough immigration law, intensified their efforts to boot out the Toughest Sheriff in America.

It’s unclear why McCain and Kyl waited three years to call for justice for the sex-crime victims—their spokesmen did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

But distancing oneself politically from an immigration hardliner might signal that the “Republican political machine understands that the Latino vote is coming out strong,” said John Loredo, a political consultant and former Democratic leader in the Arizona legislature. The Pearce recall is emblematic of a “seismic shift” in traditionally conservative Arizona politics, he said, and Republicans might finally realize they’ve “gone too far” with harsh immigration laws. If you want to get Latino votes, having “Sheriff Joe out there raiding doesn’t help,” he said.

In a phone interview with The Daily Beast, Arpaio claimed to be unfazed by the latest resignation brouhaha. He’s 79, frowns a lot but can be charming, has held office in Arizona’s most populous county for 17 years, and plans on running for another term in 2012. Any suggestion that he is too old for the job is “disgusting.” He’s not upset that McCain and Kyl voiced tepid outrage over the sex-abuse cases. It’s all political, is how he sees it. He’s been locking horns with McCain for years—he endorsed McCain’s opponents in both the Senate primaries and the 2008 presidential primary. (Recently Arpaio endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the Republican presidential primary, because he’s a “good guy” who supports the death penalty and border enforcement.)

The soon-to-retire Kyl, Arpaio said, had “always” sought his endorsement. But “it’s election time….They don’t want me in office. They don’t want me getting involved in immigration. But they know I can win.”

Sheriff Joe might be right. He’s got a reported $6 million campaign chest, fattened by out-of-state voters who lionize him as an iconic Western lawman. And Bruce Merrill, a senior research fellow for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University, reports that Arpaio still polls well in Arizona. What’s more, the sheriff’s electability is bolstered by elderly conservative voters who support immigration hardliners and tend to dominate primaries, Merrill said.

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As for the problem with the sex-crime investigation, Arpaio maintains, “We corrected it.”

Last week, he publicly apologized “if” there were any victims in El Mirage. In a Dec. 5 statement, the Sheriff’s Office said it conducted a “self-initiated audit” and discovered 532 countywide sex crimes were “not investigated completely.” Of these, 100 were found to be properly investigated, but 432 cases were “reactivated.” Of the reactivated sex-crime files, 221 were cleared using FBI guidelines,115 were unfounded, 67 were filed as cold cases, and 19 cases were resolved after arrests.

Arpaio hinted that the Phoenix Police Department had a much larger sex-crime investigation problem—with 2,500 similar botched sex-crime cases on its books. “Why don’t they ask for the resignation of Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon?” Arpaio huffed.

Sheriff Joe is technically correct. Trent Crump, a Phoenix police sergeant, confirmed that about 2,500 unsolved sex-crime cases are being “reinvestigated” after an internal probe “several months ago” revealed that one now-retired detective left “a poor paperwork trail” with unprosecuted sex-crime cases. But he implied that the difference between the Phoenix cops and the sheriff’s office centers on the responsiveness—the cops were, he said, immediately proactive and assigned a task force and two full squads to look into the cases.

In the meantime, Grijalva’s coffee-klatching brainstorm has taken on a life of its own. Liberal activists vow to keep calling for Sheriff Joe’s resignation until it happens. Randy Parraz, who led much of the Pearce recall, said the strategy is to focus on Arpaio’s alleged incompetence and misdeeds that compromise public safety—bungled sex-crime-investigations, deadly jails, public corruption, abuse of power, misspending of millions—and keep them in the public eye.

Arpaio has adamantly denied these allegations, or said he has no recollection, or has placed the blame on his aides, and says he isn’t afraid of Parraz. “Why should I worry about him?” he asked.

But Parraz, a slender, energetic University of California-Berkeley graduate, doesn’t buy it. He suspects Sheriff Joe is secretly worried about his political future because “Arizona has changed with a historic recall that transformed people. We’re energized now, and I believe Arpaio is done….His time has come.”