When I Filmed Sheriff Joe Arpaio, He Was Cooperative and Horrifying

When Marianne Schaefer Trench shot a documentary about Sheriff Joe Arpaio, her crew wanted to quit, and her audience thought they were watching a mockumentary.

Paul J. Richards/Getty

In 2001, I made a documentary film for German TV about the man who called himself “The Toughest Sheriff in America.” Ten years after I witnessed Joe Arpaio in action, a judge ordered him to stop detaining people based solely on racial profiling. Yet Arpaio continued to flout the law, and he faced up to six months in prison for criminal contempt of law. Before Arpaio was sentenced, President Trump pardoned him.

When I proposed the Arpaio documentary to my German clients, they were skeptical. They had trouble believing that his kind of law-enforcement abuse was really happening, and, if so, they weren’t confident I would able to capture it on camera. In the end, my clients were intrigued enough, because deep in the German unconscious there is still the image of the U.S. as the Wild West, a place where the toughest guy with the fastest gun will determine what Law and Order means. Sheriff Joe represented the essence of the evil cliché Germans remember from these fictional old Westerns. In my film, Arpaio even compared himself to these old movies, saying if he would ever have to retire, he would not exactly vanish by riding into the sunset, but he would vanish because he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

There was no problem getting the man to cooperate. He craved the spotlight and behaved obnoxiously to satisfy the camera. Despite his cooperation, the filming became more difficult by the day because my crew developed such disgust and hatred for the man that I feared they would turn violent. We all started to feel dirty because we realized in some sick way we were feeding his oversized ego.

When I told Arpaio I needed a good beginning for my film, some kind of “bang,” he took it literally. He owned a tank he liked to ride in parades, and while we were filming in the courtyard of the jail, the tank appeared and fired its cannon. It was indeed a very loud “bang.”

Already back then Arpaio was in legal trouble. He had a website with a live feed showing people getting booked. The website came with a warning that one might witness violence or even sexually explicit content, which of course drew many viewers.

Surveillance cameras also captured unruly detainees getting strapped into a chair and then tortured with stun guns. One inmate, Scott Norberg, died in the restraining chair. The Phoenix New Times compared the video material to watching a snuff film.

Maricopa County and the sheriff’s office had to pay an $8.25 million settlement for the Norberg case alone. At least 60 people died in Arpaio’s county jail and many more got injured. Richard Post, a paraplegic, was pulled out of his wheelchair and cinched violently into a restraint chair, causing permanent damage to his neck and shoulders. At the time of my film project there were already hundreds of lawsuits against all of the sheriff’s divisions, and the department had amassed to a total of $14.7 million in settlements in the previous five years. Yet the majority of Maricopa County residents kept voting for Arpaio and supplied millions of dollars to his campaign efforts.

When I asked him about human rights, Arpaio said, “Human rights violations? Amnesty International? They should all go back where they came from—to Iraq—instead of telling me how to do my job.”

He bragged about his prison tents because, in his opinion, detainees don’t deserve air conditioning during the scorching hot summer months or heat in the cold Arizona winters. His prisoners had to wear striped prison suits and pink underwear. In 2001, brunch was a new fad and Arpaio decided he should imitate the trend and cut down the three rotten daily prison meals to two. The women in the tent cities told me horrifying stories about the lack of medical attention. One woman in a tent claimed she had a miscarriage in her fifth month of pregnancy, without ever getting medical help.

I witnessed the brutality of it all. Arpaio said he believed in equal rights for women, so women were also put into striped suits and chain gangs. I took my mutinous crew and accompanied the women to their workplace—an empty, windswept stretch of desert, the paupers’ graveyard. Their duty was to dig graves. As they were shoveling dirt onto a coffin, all the women cried. They told me they were afraid that one day they would end up just like this. One woman sobbed harder than the others. She told me she had buried her own father in one of these graves.

The filming became downright surreal when I interviewed Arpaio’s bleached-blond wife, Ava. “My husband is just a big teddy bear,” she said. “He has a good heart. He loves his prisoners, it’s just a kind of tough love. For him prisoners are like little children who have to be punished. When kids do something bad, you also send them to bed without dinner. He thinks the prisoners have to be disciplined because they never learned any discipline.”

Even spookier than Arpaio himself was his “posse”—thousands of deputies who were nothing but geezers with guns. This posse would become infamous during the Obama administration because they were all “birthers” and worked hard to prove the lie that the president was not a natural-born citizen of the United States. Maricopa County is the land of gated communities for retirees. Many of these old people told me they were bored with their daily golf or macramé classes, and that’s why they joined the “posse.” It was like a hobby to them. All they had to do was buy a gun, a uniform, and a car. Then Arpaio slapped a sheriff star on their chests and off they went, enforcing law and order. At the time I was filming, Arpaio’s posse was 3,600-people strong, and many of them seemed too old to even drive a car. Yet they patrolled the streets, frequently singling out Hispanics.

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When my film, The Toughest Sheriff in America, aired on German TV, so many Germans flooded Arpaio’s website to vent their outrage that the site crashed. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a major German newspaper, wrote: “Wherever he finds an audience he becomes the horse-mounted guardian for law and order, an image taken straight out of a tattered fictional children’s book or a movie. In his mind the golden dreamed-up past is still alive, and because he is the sheriff he has the power to turn it into reality.” Viewers wrote angry emails to the TV station, asking for more information on why and how this is allowed to keep going on in a First World country. Germans wanted to have Arpaio tried in The Hague, and they were convinced that his behavior was unconstitutional. Some even suspected that the film was staged, a fictional mockumentary about the U.S.

Arpaio was sheriff for 24 years before he was voted out of office last November. It wasn’t until July 31 of this year that he was finally convicted of a crime—and then only for a contempt-of-court misdemeanor, not for the vicious and deadly abuse of law-enforcement power.

For the abuse, the racial discrimination, the killings and mistreatment of prisoners, Maricopa County was held responsible—never the sheriff himself. The county and its insurers had to pay the multimillion-dollar settlements. Most of the people whose rights Arpaio violated never sought justice in a court.

It’s not surprising that Arpaio is Trump’s soul mate. In my mind, the real scandal is that I met this man 16 years ago and knew he was evil to the bone. Yet he stayed in office and was able to flout the law, the Constitution, and basic human rights for 24 years. And he doesn’t have to pay for any of it.