Doubting Thomas

Tom Bearup helped elect Joe Arpaio and mold the myth of "America's Toughest Sheriff." Now the former executive in the Sheriff's Office is convinced he was wrong.

That effort suffered a serious setback, Bearup says, when an Arizona Republic article prominently described Arpaio's oily hair, dandruff and bulbous red nose. "So Lisa Allen got some makeup to put on him as he became a professional actor."

Today, Bearup estimates that 80 percent or more of Arpaio's time is taken with daily speaking engagements, interviews and the development of "Joe Shows," staged news for television cameras.

Hentoff: "Have you ever known him to lie to the media while he was sheriff?"
Bearup: "I don't know that I can ever say that he lied. I don't know that he's always told them the whole story."

Hentoff: "Do you think he's misrepresented the truth?"
Bearup: "I think he's given them what he feels they wanted to know."
Hentoff: "Can you think of an instance where he hasn't told them the whole story?"

Bearup: "I honestly can't think of anything directly."
Hentoff: "What about when he was sleeping in the tents and said that he had no protection?"

Bearup: "Oh, okay. Yeah, I believe he probably lied at that time."
It's one of Arpaio's favorite chapters of the Sheriff Joe myth: that he spent two nights in his Tent City jails accompanied only by a reporter on one occasion and an Arkansas sheriff's candidate on the other. No precautions were taken for his protection, Arpaio tells rapt audiences.

But the sheriff's own records prove that a SWAT team was stationed nearby all night on both occasions, and that on one night a sharpshooter was stationed on a roof overlooking the tents.

Bearup says it was his decision to bring in the SWAT team. Arpaio approved the plan, Bearup says, but asked that the SWAT team be kept out of sight.

Oblivious to the precautions nearby, the Republic reporter who spent the night in the tents reported that Arpaio had braved the night with no added protection.

Bearup now says it amazed him that local media were willing to take the sheriff's claims at face value without asking for records to check them.

Local media parroted Arpaio's claim, for example, that a posse program in 1996 would put 1,000 posse members on the streets for a month of busting drug pushers. Records show, however, that 100 posse members turned out the first day and the numbers quickly dwindled thereafter. By the fourth week, an average of nine volunteers showed up each day.

Camera crews have flocked to chain-gang events--in particular when Arpaio put the gangs to work burying paupers in the county's potter's field. News outlets, eager to report the chain-gang detail as a get-tough measure designed to humiliate inmates, don't know or don't mention that inmates have for years worked outside the jails, or that even in chains the inmates volunteer for the work. And, contrary to Arpaio's claims that he dreamed up the idea, inmates had also been burying paupers for decades.

Bearup says the Sheriff's Office also put its credibility at risk when, he claims, posse overseer Hendershott greatly exaggerated the effectiveness of posse raids on Van Buren Street prostitution. Luckily, Bearup says, reporters were so gladly eating up the action, they didn't bother to check Hendershott's figures.

"I wonder why the media has put up with it," he says. "If we're going to do law enforcement, let's do it. But the Van Buren operations were just another pony show. And the media fell right in line with that."

Bearup says deputy criticisms of Arpaio's vaunted posse are accurate. Out of 3,000 posse members, Bearup estimates that fewer than 100 are actually active. The program has been a serious drain on the department, and doesn't save money as Arpaio says it does.

Arpaio claims to save the county millions by various means (while his budget has actually increased each year after cuts early in his administration), including depriving inmates basic necessities and putting them at risk with few guards. That approach backfires when inmates are injured or denied medication and end up suing the county.

Arpaio claims that the amount in claims his office has paid pales beside the millions the previous administration, under Sheriff Tom Agnos, shelled out. The county had to pay those claims primarily because of a single case: the temple murders case, in which four defendants were falsely accused and won huge settlements.

Now, however, Arpaio is catching up. Figures released by the county show that in 1992, Sheriff's Office liabilities totaled about $400,000 and climbed to nearly $700,000 the following year. Then, boosted by the temple murders case, those claims jumped to more than $4 million in 1994. But since that time, under Arpaio, those numbers have not settled back to their previous level. Claims in 1995 were $1.3 million; in 1996, they totaled $968,830.

And still pending are most of the high-profile cases of inmate abuse which have occurred under Arpaio, including that of Scott Norberg, whose family is seeking $20 million in damages.

Bearup will no doubt be called on many more times to testify in those cases. He says he's becoming more resolute in that role.

"I can't stand the thought of money being stolen at the Sheriff's Office. It just turns my stomach. And the way he treats people is so abusive. It's sad that the public has been duped the way that it has. If our concern was the safety and the protection of the public rather than grandstanding, there would be a totally different approach at the Sheriff's Office."

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