Joe Arpaio: America's toughest sheriff faces his reckoning

He's been the scourge of immigrants for years – but now Joe Arpaio faces a Civil Rights trial. Guy Adams reports on a publicity-seeker in crisis

It'll be business as usual today at the prison complex just outside Phoenix, Arizona, where Joe Arpaio has spent two decades attempting to do justice to his self-proclaimed nickname: "America's Toughest Sheriff." At 2.30pm, the rotund 80-year-old police chief will hold a press conference to unveil what a spokesman promises will be "breathtaking" new evidence that Barack Obama was born outside the US, and is therefore ineligible to be President.

Mr Arpaio, better known as "Sheriff Joe," will be accompanied by his "Cold Case Posse," a group of volunteer investigators he sent to Hawaii, where they claim to have unearthed "shocking" information which suggests that the President's birth certificate and other official documents are forged.

In any sane universe, a group of elderly, white, right-wing men attempting to advance this long-debunked and – some might say – racially-motivated conspiracy theory would be either ignored or treated with contempt. But this is the era of the Tea Party and cable news, where facts are so interchangeable with internet rumour that, according to a recent poll, one in six Americans reckons that their beer-drinking, Bin Laden-killing, churchgoing President is a secret Muslim.

So Mr Arpaio will surely get the limelight today, just as he has done throughout his tenure as Sheriff of Maricopa County, the portion of Arizona which includes Phoenix, where he was first elected in 1992, and where he faces a re-election battle this November. With a following wind, the exploits of his "Cold Case Posse" could even inspire a round of generous financial donations to his campaign.

Not much publicity is bad publicity for "Sheriff Joe," who has risen from small-town obscurity to become a staple of national conversation on the back of controversial PR stunts – whether they involve Mr Obama's birth certificate or, to pluck another example from Mr Arpaio's CV, a policy of forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear. It is his stance on the thorny issue of illegal immigration which has earned him perhaps the greatest notoriety, however.

In recent years, his department has begun conducting high-profile "sweeps" of its territory, in which just under 30 per cent of citizens are Hispanic, arresting tens of thousands of suspected "illegals" and then handing them over to authorities for potential deportation.

On Thursday, this policy is due to land Mr Arpaio in Phoenix's Federal District Court. There, he will face a class-action civil rights lawsuit filed by several innocent victims of the "sweeps".

The plaintiffs include Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican citizen who has a valid visa allowing him to be in the US, but was arrested, handcuffed, and held for hours by Mr Arpaio's officers in 2007 without being read his rights or allowed a phone call. They also include two US citizens, of Hispanic appearance, who were detained at gunpoint during another "sweep," without explanation.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, which is helping bring the case, the crackdowns on suspected illegal immigrants by Mr Arpaio's deputies – who are aided by civilian volunteer "posses," including some white motorcycle gangs – revolve around the illegal use of racial profiling, and should therefore be declared unlawful.

Mr Arpaio is also facing legal action from the US Justice Department, which has accused him of a "pattern of unlawful discrimination". A lawsuit filed in May seeks to end the "culture of bias" which it alleges pervades among his 900 sheriff's deputies and 1,800 county jail officers.

The suit suggests that on Sheriff Joe's patch, Latinos are five to nine times more likely to be stopped for motoring offences than white people. Once in jail, inmates who failed to understand commands in English have been subjected to solitary confinement for 23 hours a day.

A review of internal emails and arrest records found cases of one Latino being intentionally hit by a patrol car, and of another being imprisoned for 13 days for not using his indicators before turning. In memos, Mr Arpaio's deputies talked about cracking down on people from "Mexifornia"; in county prison, Hispanics were derided by officers as "wetbacks", "Mexican bitches" and "stupid Mexicans".

Mr Arpaio, a supporter of the Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, has described the charges as politically-motivated, saying that the Department of Justice is pursuing a vendetta on behalf of President Obama. Isolated incidents of discrimination by employees do not reflect official policy, he argues. In the past, he has denied allegations of racism on the grounds that he likes Mexican food and has a Hispanic daughter-in-law.

To critics, Mr Arpaio nonetheless represents a case-study in the flaws inherent in the direct election of Sheriffs. The system often leads to politically-partisan law enforcement by candidates, they argue, who have nothing to lose by alienating minority demographics.

The sheriff, they argue, cemented his grip on the hearts and minds of Arizona voters through a tough policy of housing prisoners in tents, despite daytime temperatures in the region which can top 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

His obsession with the limelight extends to filming a reality television programme with the actor Steven Seagal. One of them, in 2011, saw Mr Arpaio and Segal use a tank and 40 SWAT officers to raid the house of a Hispanic man suspected of raising chickens for cockfighting. The man, who claims to be a lawful poultry farmer, is suing.

Yet for all the kerfuffle, Mr Arpaio has already received nearly a million dollars in campaign donations this year, 85 per cent from out-of-state supporters. His nearest rival for November's ballot has meanwhile raised a paltry $50,000. Despite, or perhaps because of his gift for controversy, America's toughestsheriff looks set to keep on winning elections.

Arizona's immigration: in numbers

360,000: The estimated number of illegal immigrants living in Arizona

280,000: The number of illegal immigrants detained at the US-Mexico border in 2011

68: Percentage of Americans who support the Arizona immigration law, according to a poll

150,000: The number of arrests resulting in deportation made between late 2007 and late 2011 in Arizona

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