Most people know him simply as “Sheriff Joe” - the self-proclaimed toughest lawman in the United States. And, apparently, the five-term boss of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Phoenix wants another four years.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio formally announced his re-election campaign Thursday, boasting a record $6 million war chest and promising to “continue to protect the citizens of Maricopa County by enforcing all the laws.” That would include immigration law that has gotten the sheriff and his department crosswise with the Justice Department in Washington.
“It is an honor and a privilege to serve as sheriff of Maricopa County,” said the embattled 79-year-old sheriff, who had considered a run for the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona being vacated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl but determined “there was still much work to do as sheriff.”
Despite recent criticism and “brazen political stunts” carried out by his perennial detractors, he said he remained committed to serving as sheriff by “unapologetically enforcing the rule of law and being tough on crime.”
Being tough on crime, particularly illegal immigrants, has gotten the attention of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which last month accused the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in a scathing Justice Department report of violating federal law and the Constitution in its handling of Hispanics arrested and held in jail.
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the department’s Civil Rights Division, said during a Dec. 15 news conference that a three-year civil investigation found that the sheriff and his deputies engaged in unconstitutional conduct and violations of federal law that jeopardized his “commitment to fair and effective” law enforcement.
The investigation resulted in a decision by Homeland Security to strip Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies of their authority to determine whether jailed inmates were in the country illegally and restricted the office’s use of a federal fingerprint program to identify illegal immigrants.
The sheriff’s office is expected to respond to the Justice Department report by Jan. 18. A separate federal grand jury investigation of the office also is continuing.
Sheriff Arpaio bitterly attacked the inquiry, calling it a politically motivated assault by the Obama administration that will make Arizona unsafe by taking away his authority to keep illegal immigrants off the street.
“Don’t come here and use me as the whipping boy for a national and international problem,” he said. “We are going to cooperate the best we can. And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.”
An unusually animated Sheriff Arpaio called the investigation “a sad day for America as a whole” and denounced President Obama for putting a greater priority on going after law enforcement than securing the border with Mexico. He said the president and “a band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink neon sign at the Arizona-Mexico border saying, ‘Welcome all illegals to your United States. Our home is your home.’”
The not-unexpected Justice Department report says it documented discriminatory policing practices including unlawful stops, detentions and arrests of Hispanics; unlawful retaliation against people exercising their First Amendment right to criticize the agency’s policies or practices, including its treatment of Hispanics; and discriminatory jail practices against inmates with limited English proficiency.
But the negative allegations have not hindered the sheriff’s ability to keep office.
First elected in 1992, he was re-elected by wide margins in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 - on some occasions by winning more than 65 percent of the vote.
Prior to becoming sheriff, he was a police officer in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas, before joining the Drug Enforcement Administration, where he served as a top drug agent for 25 years. His last DEA assignment was as head of the agency’s Phoenix field office.