Mutiny At The County

Sheriff Arpaio's deputies say his vaunted posse does little more than waste money and slake their boss's thirst for publicity

Deputies say that shift of resources has had real impact for sworn officers. Advanced training programs have been cut and pay increases are on hold. They say the shift has also put the county's residents in unincorporated areas at risk: Patrol districts are asked to donate men and vehicles to posse programs targeting incorporated areas where more voters live, and where the press is more likely to pay attention.

And the press has obliged, responding uncritically and perpetuating the notion that Arpaio's "2,700-strong posse" is acting en masse, throwing bad guys in jail left and right, saving the county millions.

Now the sheriff is holding up his posse as a model for the rest of the country. His book, America's Toughest Sheriff, repeats his bogus claims for a nationwide audience, encouraging readers to start posses in their own hometowns. At book signings, Arpaio is congratulated and adored, the champion of a public that thinks his programs are effective at fighting crime.

Arpaio's employees say it isn't so. And they're letting him know it.

When Joe Arpaio sits down for an interview, he can't wait to describe the gun battles he's survived. Turkey. Mexico. Panama. Name the country, he dodged bullets there when he was an agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

What he's less apt to discuss are the pot shots his own employees have taken at him.

Like the time he and his wife, Ava, returned from a European vacation. It was 1976 or 1977 (Arpaio's unsure on that point after so many years), and the couple had landed at Boston's Logan Airport after a flight from Rome. Customs officials, alerted by someone inside DEA to look for a drug runner named Joe Arpaio, detained the couple and interrogated them.

The Arpaios' luggage was searched and it was some time before Arpaio's story--that he was a narcotics agent, not a smuggler--checked out.

Arpaio's former DEA colleagues say he spent the rest of his career there trying to find out which of his employees set him up for the humiliating prank. He still doesn't know.

"These things you go through when you're a manager quite often, or when you're a sheriff or the head of an agency and so on, so that didn't bother me. But it was a little comical," he says, sounding more annoyed than amused.

Arpaio is sitting behind his desk, looking haggard; the night before, he was in California to film an episode of Comedy Central's Politically Incorrect. Never mind that the host called him America's "stupidest sheriff"--the cable-TV program provided the national exposure he craves. And Arpaio makes it plain that the next journalist is champing to get into his large, wood-paneled office to interview "America's toughest sheriff."

But he has enough time to acknowledge that, yes, the Logan Airport story is true. "Yeah, yeah, it was a prank. Yeah, okay. So what?" he asks. He's incredulous that his men are spreading this story around. "In 1996 someone mentioned that happened, that someone searched my luggage? How the hell? Was it in my book?" (It isn't.)

If Arpaio were truly the toughest sheriff in America, few of his employees would likely find fault with him. In the mock-military culture of law enforcement, where majors and captains give orders to lieutenants and sergeants, there's no shortage of machismo. But Maricopa County's deputies, like anyone who spends more than a few minutes with Joseph M. Arpaio, know that the labels attached to him--variations on the "mean" and "tough" themes--are completely inappropriate.

Arpaio isn't tough or mean. Bellicose, maybe. In person, the pudgy 62-year-old seems more frail than frightening. Deputies say they've been instructed to take it easy if they're ever transporting the sheriff in their patrol cars.

The toughness thing is an act, and even Arpaio seems fully aware of it. One minute he's an avuncular paisan who misses the old days when a lawman and a reporter could talk over cigars in a dimly lit tavern. The next minute he's a self-righteous social reformer shouting most of the get-tough slogans he shouted at four other reporters earlier that day.

That his deputies are talking about him, and not in the kindest terms, doesn't seem to faze him. Arpaio brushes it off as the grumblings of "two or three disgruntled employees."

"That's normal in any organization. But since the deputies association, the Fraternal Order of Police, and the AFSCME, all the unions support the sheriff, I feel pretty good that I have the major support of my troops."

But when it comes to disgruntled employees--armed, no less--the U.S. Postal Service has nothing on the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

"I can't believe the people of this county think this guy is as great as they do," says retired deputy chief Bill Miller. "They never sit in morning staff meetings and listen to this guy slapping and pounding the table, acting like an idiot and chewing people out because one of his men talked to the media at a crime scene." Arpaio's obsession with controlling press coverage--so that it focuses entirely on him--has worn down the people around him, Miller says.

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