Face to face with Sheriff Joe: America’s outlaw politician

This interview was originally published by GQ in 2012 when Independent proprietor Evgeny Lebedev met America's most controversial lawman. Five years later Sheriff Joe is at the centre of a legal row after Donald Trump controversially pardoned him for alleged racial profiling of suspected illegal immigrants

Evgeny Lebedev
Phoenix, Arizona
Friday 01 September 2017 18:11 BST
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Anthem, Arizona, January 2013
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Anthem, Arizona, January 2013 (Reuters)

Sheriff Joe might be a hero to much of the electorate in Phoenix's suburbs, but here, in the city's heart, the attitude was very different. Arpaio revels in his image as America's toughest top cop, but to his opponents, and particularly to those targeted by his brash rule, he is the one breaking the law.

After joining the US Army at the outbreak of the Korean War, he was a police officer in Washington DC and Las Vegas. In 1957, he was appointed a federal narcotics agent, finally being named head of the DEA’s Arizona branch.

Hung in pride of place was a black-and-white photograph of him in the White House. President Nixon was addressing those who had been assigned to end the Mafia’s hold on the drug trade, an operation later dramatised in the film The French Connection (1971). “We broke the Mafia,” Arpaio explained. “We did that because the president said: ‘We are going to stop the international heroin trade,’ and we did.”

Other pictures paid testament not to his achievements, but to the myth of the hard-nosed frontier lawman. There was a painting of a cowboy; John Wayne with the sheriff’s head superimposed; a triptych of “Famous Arizona Lawmen” in which Phoenix’s modern-day sheriff was placed alongside Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Arpaio may have been raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, as part of a large Italian community – his father was born in Naples – but he now fully subscribed to the legends of the Old West. He understood that this heritage gives the post of sheriff symbolic power, particularly in a border state like Arizona. People want to believe the sheriff and his posse can protect them.

“I didn’t take this job to be a typical bureaucrat law enforcer,” said Sheriff Joe. “I wanted to do things different. When I leave, I’ll ride off into the sunset. Not on a horse, because I’m from Massachusetts, so probably in a convertible. I’ll say goodbye and [with the] years I have left, maybe I’ll be able to see my family.”

Most interesting, however, were the pictures of his political influence. There was a photograph of Arpaio embracing George W Bush; another of him with “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf, the US Army general who won the Gulf War.

“They all come,” Arpaio told me of the Republican establishment. “I had all the recent presidential candidates visit me. Michele Bachmann sitting right there. Herman Cain sitting right there. I’ve toured with Governor [Rick] Perry. I’ve known Newt [Gingrich] for years. I was Mitt Romney’s campaign guy for four or five years. I met all these guys.”


The biggest and most dramatic display in his office, however, stood directly behind his desk. It paid testimony to the initiative that prompted these politicians to beat a path to his door. The exhibit was a wooden sign at least six-feet tall. “Tent City”, it proclaimed in black paint. “Hard labor. Haircuts. Bologna sandwiches. 35¢ meals. Educational TV. Pink underwear. High of 122˚F (50˚c). Drug testing. No smoking. No movies. No coffee. No girlie magazines.” Attached to it was a neon sign of the type seen outside highway motels. When turned on, it flashed: “Vacancy”.

In the Nineties, Sheriff Joe ruled that the state’s prisons were too comfortable for his prisoners, so removed as many inmates as possible from their air-conditioned cell blocks to re-house them under canvas in the desert. More than 1,000 of Maricopa County’s male and female inmates are now in an area called Tent City, a collection of Korean War-era tents surrounded by fences topped with barbed wire and overlooked by guard towers manned by armed correction officers.

The inmates work, sleep and eat in temperatures that regularly top 38˚C. Last summer, it got so hot that the prisoners’ shoes melted as they walked across the communal yard. In a policy that prisoner-rights groups condemned, Arpaio also insisted the men and women incarcerated there be issued not only with black-and-white striped clothes as part of their regulation uniforms, but pink underwear too.

The choice of pink was claimed to stop theft (white boxer shorts apparently being a hot object to steal and smuggle out on release; some inmates were caught wearing four or five pairs), but his opponents maintain it was solely to heap further humiliation upon those he had jailed.

“What’s wrong with pink?” the sheriff snapped. “Should I put them in orange or green? You think men don’t wear pink? Everybody is wearing pink today, all the movie stars. Do you know whether I wear pink underwear?”

Do you?

“Well I am not going to show you that,” he shot back with a smirk. “But there’s nothing wrong with pink.”

Tent City was not the end of Arpaio’s unorthodox approach to incarceration. He reintroduced volunteer chain gangs, sending groups of men, their ankles chained, to labour for seven-hour shifts under the Arizona sun. He soon implemented them for female inmates, too, saying he did not want to be sued for discrimination.

Both groups were made to walk by main roads to maximise the public impact.

Donald Trump with Joe Arpaio at a campaign rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, in January 2016, after the former sheriff endorsed his candidacy
Donald Trump with Joe Arpaio at a campaign rally in Marshalltown, Iowa, in January 2016, after the former sheriff endorsed his candidacy (Reuters)

Prisoners don’t have to live in a Hilton hotel,” he insisted. “You go to London, you see a TV set in every cell and the sign up that all the officers must treat prisoners with dignity. What about your dedicated soldiers that have helped fight in Afghanistan and Iraq? They’re living in tents and our soldiers are living in tents. So it’s OK for soldiers to live in tents, in hot tents, but it’s wrong for inmates?”

Some of the cells that were vacated by the prisoners sent to Tent City were filled with dogs rescued from abusive homes. Arpaio makes no secret of his love for man’s most loyal friend. Indeed, a whole section of his office is dedicated to awards from animal-welfare groups. It was, however, a decision particularly criticised by prisoner-rights groups who contend Tent City is not suitable for human habitation.

“I needed a place to put the dogs,” Arpaio said, his hands held up to deflect the question. “The prisoners ruined the jail, so I put the prisoners in the tents and I had a nice place to put the dogs. We treat the cats nice too, and horses. I have the inmates take care of the animals. It’s therapy too, you see. [There's] method to my madness.”

His mobile suddenly rang in his pocket. “You hear that?” he said as he pulled it out, once again the showman. “You know – that’s Frank.”

From the old-fashioned black handset came his chosen ringtone.

It was “My Way” by Frank Sinatra.

The sound of a crowd chanting, “Brown skin is not a crime,” could be heard a block from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement building. Outside, people were waving hand-painted placards or dancing to the Mexican band set up on the back of a lorry.

Sheriff Joe might be a hero to much of the electorate in Phoenix’s suburbs, but here, in the city’s heart, the attitude was very different. Arpaio revels in his image as America’s toughest top cop, but to his opponents, and particularly to those targeted by his brash rule, he is the one breaking the law.


“Our community is being terrorised,” said Carlos Garcia who, as leader of the human-rights group Puente Arizona, has recruited thousands of young people to campaign against Arpaio. “To little kids, he is the bogeyman. That is why the federal authorities have to step in. They have the evidence. Now they need to stop him.”

That evidence is certainly starting to stack up. In May 2012, the Justice Department sued Arpaio, accusing him of racial profiling. Two months later, a federal civil-rights trial was launched by those who claimed to be victims of just such a policy. The court proceedings, in which Arpaio vehemently denied the charges and which – at the time of writing – are still to reach a verdict, were not pleasant for the sheriff. Whatever the court decides, his record and reputation have come under sustained attack.

The prosecution showed the court media interviews in which he said being compared to the Ku Klux Klan was “an honour”, and described the police force he ran as not just a law-and-order body but a “fully-fledged deferral immigration agency”, despite that never being its mandate.

The federal racial-profiling case alleged that Arpaio’s prison guards talked about Latino inmates as “stupid Mexicans” and “wetbacks”, and that female prisoners were made to sleep in their own menstrual blood. Drivers were pulled over, case documents reported, simply because they spoke limited English.

Maricopa County is only 50 miles from the Mexican border. Thirty per cent of its residents are Latino, up 47 per cent in the past decade. The political and financial power, however, still lies in the county’s largely white and conservative communities. Many living there are retired and they do not like the way the county has changed, a fear compounded by the regular reports they see on channels such as Fox News which depict, in graphic detail, crimes carried out by illegal immigrants on home owners.

In 2004, ambitious local politician Andrew Thomas was elected chief prosecutor of Maricopa County after a scaremongering campaign that promised to crack down on illegal immigrants. Arpaio, it appears, saw the way the political wind was blowing. Shortly afterwards, he launched his Human Smuggling Unit with the explicit instruction that it defend the border.

The co-operation agreement with the sheriff that permitted his deputies to enforce immigration law was terminated by the federal government after his offices conducted saturation sweeps of Latino neighbourhoods, with hundreds of police cars and officers flooding residential streets. Undeterred, Arpaio claimed to be fulfilling the requirements of a higher authority – the constitution itself – and, with the legitimacy provided by the continued support of his electoral base, went on to detain 51,000 illegal immigrants in the past five years. They, Arpaio likes to say, had not arrived in America like his father had. He had come from Italy “legally”.

Mary Rose Wilcox, the only Democrat, woman and Latina on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, was one of the few officials to publicly challenge Arpaio’s behaviour. Retribution was swift. In 2009, she was indicted on trumped-up corruption charges brought by Thomas, which a judge subsequently threw out as a blatant misuse of power which had been concocted with the help of the sheriff.

When we met, Wilcox was determined to emphasise that she was not the only one targeted. The co-owners of the Phoenix New Times were arrested at their respective family homes after the paper published details of the sheriff’s properties, including investments. The coverage resulted in subpoenas demanding a release of computer records, including those of anyone who had visited the New Times’ website and read the story. That case too was dismissed, and a £9m lawsuit launched in response.

Sheriff Joe

But what is particularly shocking about Wilcox’s experience is the campaign of intimidation that she claims was directed against her. In the style of the Old West, Arpaio has a posse of volunteers who work for him. They have operated for 50 years in the county. While the posse’s responsibilities traditionally include search and rescue or traffic control, under Sheriff Joe it underwent a rapid recruitment, and its tasks expanded to place it front and centre in his anti-immigration campaign. At one point, 250 of his volunteers were patrolling the border.

According to Wilcox, she was followed through the streets, and gangs on motorbikes harassed customers at one of the restaurants she ran. “They are rough-looking people,” she said. “A lot of them have tattoos, many Nazi tattoos.” They would circle the restaurant, frightening her clientele. In the end, she says, she had no choice but to close the business.

It is this posse with which Steven Seagal is associated, having been sworn in alongside The Incredible Hulk actor Lou Ferrigno in 2010. This February, Arpaio and a group of officers in riot gear, with Seagal in a SWAT armoured car, raided the property of a chicken farmer accused of supporting a cockfighting ring. As they burst into the farm, a lawsuit later claimed, they set off explosives, damaged the farmhouse, subsequently causing the death of 100 chickens, and shooting an eleven-month-old puppy.

The event was filmed for Seagal’s reality-TV series Steven Seagal: Lawman. The resulting furore contributed to the A&E TV network pulling the episode, and the series being wiped from schedules. Asked to justify his behaviour, Seagal – who had gone into action dressed in full camouflage combat uniform, a bandana and wraparound sunglasses – told reporters: “Animal cruelty is one of my pet peeves.”

Sheriff Joe Arpaio enjoyed a rapturous reception at the Republican convention in Cleveland in July
Sheriff Joe Arpaio enjoyed a rapturous reception at the Republican convention in Cleveland in July ((Reuters))

Tent City, when you first visit it, looks like something from a reality- TV show – one in which Arpaio is the star. The prisoners have the sheriff’s name emblazoned on the back of their striped uniforms so they do not forget who put them there. His department flag flies proudly over the main yard. Like in Arpaio’s office, a motel “vacancy” sign has been erected, this time at the top of a guard tower.

It even has its own theme tune. In a room off the main yard, a group of women were instructed to sing the song they chant on the chain gang, the group shuffling in a circle while a guard looked on. “Left, left, left/Right, right, right/Uh-uh oh-oh/Sheriff Joe don’t you know/My back is aching my feet are sore/I won’t break the law no more.”

It is not a TV show. This is their reality. Home for the prisoners is communal tents, open at both ends, holding lines of bunk beds. Inside one, they crowded around me, detailing how it was too hot to sleep and how sometimes there was not enough water to drink. In the women’s yard, they muttered darkly of being dragged to “the hole”, a solitary-confinement cell reserved for supposed troublemakers. Everyone was nervous that the guards would overhear their complaints. Few would speak on the record.

One who would was a young woman, Bathema al-Kheif, and that was only because she was soon due for release. Even then she was careful about her words. “They keep us in lock-down in the heat,” she told me. “It feels like the fan is blowing more heat towards us. Earlier, we got into trouble for soaking our clothes; you know, soaking [them] just to go outside.

“Joe,” she continued to me, addressing her words to the sheriff, “this idea was not very smart. You should care for the inmates, rather than caring more for animals.”

Shortly before the end of my visit, she rushed over. “Don’t, this is wrong,” she shouted, seemingly informed that even having talked to the media would be enough to get her into trouble. Alerted by the kerfuffle, guards dragged her away through a metal door.

The next day she was seen locked in a cell in isolation. This time she would not even look at, let along speak, to visitors.

No one seemed to think Arpaio would lose the election, even though the recent court case and federal investigation had seen his popularity numbers start to tumble. Not that Sheriff Joe was worried. He told me that, once he wins this race, he will start preparing for the next one, four years down the line.

The key reason is the campaign funds he has raised. His war chest stands at £4.3m. His opponent, Paul Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer, has struggled to raise £600,000. Much comes from out of state, fuelled by the media posturing that has made the sheriff a national star and an honoured guest at the Republican National Convention, where Mitt Romney received Arpaio’s support for his immigration policies. The celebrity endorsements, TV shows, Fox News appearances, rabid supporters and posse volunteers have worked. Unless the voters of Maricopa County pull a surprise, at the time of writing it doesn’t look like Sheriff Joe will be hanging up his badge.

At the end of our interview, I asked him whether he believed his strongman image was the secret to his electoral success.

He shrugged. “I don’t know why they vote for me. I have women come up to me all the time, next to my wife, and say, ‘We love what you’re doing.’ Maybe they feel that I’m trying to protect them and fight for them. I don’t know. I’m not a psychiatrist.

“I don’t hide. I tell it like it is. I like to think they know I don’t lie. When I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And I don’t surrender. Everything I did in the jails – chain gangs, everything – I haven’t changed the policy. I did it, I stand by it, and I’m not going to change.”

So, are you the toughest sheriff in the country?

He liked that, as I knew he would. His thin lips pulled back to show tightly packed teeth. “Not the country,” he answered. “The world.”

Evgeny Lebedev is the owner of the Evening Standard and Independent titles, and editor-in-chief of independentvoices.com. Follow Evgeny Lebedev on Twitter at @mrevgenylebedev

Original Published in GQ in December 2012. © The Condé Nast Publications Ltd.

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