In nearly 20 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio has honed his publicity skills, using headline-grabbing, often outrageous maneuvers to build a reputation as the nation’s toughest law officer and make himself a hero to many Americans.
He created the nation’s first female chain gang; issued pink socks and underwear to the men held in the county’s jails; and housed inmates in refurbished Korean War tents under the blazing desert sun, then cut the salt and pepper out of their two meals a day. He also sent a posse to Hawaii to check on President Obama’s birth certificate, earning staunch supporters and vociferous opponents along the way.
But now his penchant for public relations coups, each seemingly intended to outdo the last, threatens to become one of his greatest liabilities.
Sheriff Arpaio and his office are on trial in a federal class-action lawsuit here, accused of singling out Latinos, regardless of citizenship or immigration status, for stops, questioning and detention during large-scale policing operations. The Justice Department has sued him on the same grounds, alleging discriminatory practices that extend from the streets to the jails.
On the stand last week, he had to confront past statements to the news media: Is it indeed “an honor” to be compared to the Ku Klux Klan, as he once told the TV anchor Lou Dobbs? Is the appearance of having “just came from another country” reason enough to target a person for arrest, as he said to the talk show host Glenn Beck?
“Sheriff,” Stanley Young, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, asked him, “which is the truth — what you say here in court, or what you say to audiences who want to hear you talk?”