FOLLOWING SPIRITED competition among Republican presidential candidates for his endorsement, Joe Arpaio, who fancies himself America’s “toughest sheriff,” finally tipped his hand last month for Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The support of Mr. Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, has not revived Mr. Perry’s candidacy. But Hispanic voters may long remember the spectacle of the GOP’s grandees preening like schoolboys for the favor of a figure best known for his contempt toward America’s largest minority group.
Mr. Arpaio isn’t America’s toughest sheriff. He’s a rogue and a showman who has leveraged thinly veiled racism to his political advantage. In the name of combating illegal immigration in a state that has seen a good deal of it, Mr. Arpaio has left thousands of Latino residents of Phoenix and its suburbs, legal and illegal, feeling hunted and harassed.
Now the U.S. Justice Department has issued a shot across Mr. Arpaio’s bow, in a 22-page letter outlining its findings following an investigation that began under the George W. Bush administration. The department’s conclusions include evidence that Mr. Arpaio’s department targets Hispanic neighborhoods and drivers; that his office is rife with a culture of bias; that officers in jails run by the sheriff’s department treat Spanish-speaking prisoners abominably, referring to them as “wetbacks,” “stupid Mexicans” and worse; and that his department has carried out retaliatory detentions and arrests against critics.
The feds have given Mr. Arpaio a few weeks to devise a plan to set things right in his department or face a civil lawsuit that would put millions of dollars in federal aid to the sheriff’s department in jeopardy.
In response, Mr. Arpaio has played the victim, saying he is being used as “a whipping boy for a national and international problem.” In fact, his policies and tactics have gone far beyond any reasonable response to the challenges posed by undocumented immigrants.
On the basis of a detailed review of documents, Justice Department investigators found that Latino drivers in Maricopa County were four to nine times more likely to be stopped by sheriff’s deputies than similarly situated non-Latino drivers. They found that a fifth of such stops were unjustified, in violation of the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. They found that the sheriff’s office routinely responded to “intelligence” from citizens consisting of nothing more than reports that dark-skinned or Spanish-speaking individuals were congregating in a certain place.
Mr. Arpaio was facing plenty of problems at home, including a grand jury investigation into allegations that his department’s anti-corruption squad has cooked up groundless cases against lawyers, judges and officials who have criticized him. In addition, local media have reported that the sheriff’s office has ignored or mishandled sex crime investigations and child molestation cases involving Hispanic victims.
The abuses in Maricopa County are long-standing and well documented, and the federal response has been slow in coming. Mr. Arpaio would be wise not to mistake the deliberate pace of the Justice Department’s action for a lack of resolve.