According to the law, a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until he's proved guilty in court. But, in Maricopa County, the presumption of innocence won't protect you from rotting in jail for months.
Only money will protect you from Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Because the law doesn't apply here.
Law enforcement in this county is the stuff of classic Westerns--the kind of movie in which a stranger rides in and finds a town presided over by a sinister dictator who defies the law and runs things his way. Trouble is, we don't have a mysterious stranger riding into town to save us. The closest we have to a mysterious stranger is Janet Napolitano. And, like The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, she'll take the side that best serves her own interests.
In years to come, Arpaio's administration will be regarded as a barbaric and shameful part of Arizona's history. But, for now, he's free to do as he likes.
And what he likes to do is play at being sheriff. Joe Arpaio is not a tough law enforcer whose rough-and-ready methods upset the soft of heart. He's a clown with a badge, an overgrown child trying to live in real life the fantasy world of the Lone Ranger books he loved in his youth.
He wants a new playpen--a new jail that will cost the county hundreds of millions. It could be argued that even prisoners would vote for that--because the Third World conditions in the sheriff's gulag are partially due to overcrowding.
But we don't need a new jail.
We don't even need the jails we have.
Most of the people in the jails shouldn't be there. Most haven't been convicted of anything. They're presumed to be innocent--just like you and me. Would you accept that the county has the right to lock you in a squalid jail for months on end without finding you guilty of anything?
Arpaio brags that he puts bad guys in jail where they need to be. On July 7, there were 7,062 "bad guys" in his custody. But 5,455 of them hadn't been convicted of anything. They were in jail for being poor--for not having the money to bail themselves out.
Arpaio brags that his jails are so miserable that inmates never want to come back. The reality is that they do come back. His policies haven't affected recidivism even by 1 percent. Even the Sheriff's Office makes no claims for a reduction in crime under his regime. He hasn't made the county any safer, only more oppressive.
And yet this verbose, chuckling child-man, with his strange mixture of innocence and spite, has 85 percent approval ratings. He's allowed to do what he wants, no matter what the law--or anyone else--says.
Last October, a federal report on conditions in Arpaio's jails unequivocally condemned him. Arpaio declared that he had been exonerated by the report, and his flunky, Napolitano, then the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, backed him up. It's uncertain whether she did this because she didn't want to antagonize the most popular politician in the state, or just didn't want to be seen as soft on crime. What is certain is that she colluded in Arpaio's lying.
The federal report was part of a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Arpaio. But the feds agreed to drop the lawsuit if Arpaio made changes to his regime in the coming six months. Now, the lawsuit having been dropped, the sheriff boasts that he has ignored the law. "Conditions are the same," he says. "Nothing has changed."
He's not kidding. In the county jails, torture and abuse are still the norm. Day to day and week to week, the reports come in--inmates being beaten, denied medication, given food unfit for animals. There are so many lawsuits pending that it's impossible to keep track of them all. Richard Post, the paraplegic who was strapped in a restraint chair and had his neck broken and his anus ruptured. David Dalbec, whom detention officers beat within an inch of his life; the surveillance tape of that event was conveniently lost. Paul Van Noy, beaten and then left to lie in his own blood, piss and shit for 24 hours . . .
And so it goes on. And everyone knows it. And, still, it's allowed to go on.
He has received one slap on the wrist recently. Weirdly, although Arpaio is apparently permitted to torture people in his custody, he's not allowed to deny them access to pornography. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arpaio could not refuse to let an inmate receive his subscription to Playboy.
"We don't believe it's a First Amendment issue," his spokeswoman, Lisa Allen, tells me. "The issue is sexual harassment and security. Inmates already have no problem throwing feces and urine at guards--we don't want them to be able to ejaculate on guards as well."
But why would inmates need Playboy to enable them to do that?
"Well, we don't need to give them any help."
What about the sexual harassment issue?
"One third of our detention officers are women. It's their workplace. They shouldn't have to look at naked pictures."
It's not just Janet Napolitano who protects Arpaio. Nor is it her successor as U.S. Attorney, Jose DeJesus Rivera.
It's nearly everyone.
The dysfunctional Arizona media does all it can to put a positive spin on his abuses. In a July 5 story in the Arizona Republic, a reporter criticized the sheriff. But the piece was headlined "Arpaio Rules," and began with the federal government dropping the lawsuit against him. You had to read well into the article before it became clear that all was not rosy with the Sheriff's Office.
Last week, when Arpaio and his 300-pound henchman David Hendershott--Tonto to Arpaio's Lone Ranger--were beaten up by a drunken hairdresser, the Republic reported that "America's Toughest Sheriff went toe-to-toe . . . and came out a winner, although not without help."
And those who don't help him directly will help him indirectly, to benefit themselves.
The Maricopa County Public Health Department is apparently willing to break its own rules to help Arpaio with the $900 million new jail he so desperately wants. Board of Supervisors chairwoman Jan Brewer has announced that "employees on duty, in uniform, or using county resources may not 'campaign' on the jail question. . . . Employees should feel free to express their opinions or preferences on the election after work hours, or on their own time and expense, and while not in uniform. . . . It is suggested that employees give a disclaimer, stating that their views are not made or given using county resources or at public expense, and that they are given on the employee's own time."
That's obviously news to Dr. Jonathan Weisbuch, director of public health. In a department newsletter dated May 22, he demands that employees support the new jail tax. He complains about the lack of office space in his department, then goes on to say that a new building has been chosen for him and his employees to move to. But, he says, "One huge obstacle remains in our path. Voters in Maricopa County must approve the new jail tax for us to have any hope of moving to larger facilities. The county has a court-mandated obligation to improve its jail facilities. The only question is whether the funds to fulfill this obligation will come from special sales tax revenues or from the budgets of the county departments, including public health, that depend on general funds. If the tax fails, we could face a large cut in our budget. Cuts of this magnitude not only would end plans for a move but would seriously strain the resources we currently use to do our jobs.
"The legislature has approved putting the tax on the ballot. Public Health employees and their colleagues around the country must vote for the tax and must encourage friends and family to do the same. Only after the tax is approved can we be assured of our relocation plans."
Ted Jarvi, an attorney who battled Arpaio in court for years, rightly claims that the present system is waging a war against the poor.
Arpaio's system is based on money, or the lack of it, and it's money that will bring him down. He's going to bankrupt the county. The Republic's July 5 piece reported that he has only had to pay out about $100,000 in settlements to people who have sued him, but lawyers who've dealt with him tell a different story.
"That's such bullshit," says Patti Shelton, an attorney who's currently handling three lawsuits against the sheriff. "I know that my firm alone has recovered more than that."
Asked her opinion of Arpaio, Shelton is to the point. "I think he's evil."
According to the county's risk management office, in 1995 alone, liabilities against the Sheriff's Office came to $1.3 million. The following year, the county paid out $968,830 more.
In addition to the lawsuits paid off and pending, there is the $900 million Arpaio wants to build the new jail. Why do we need a new jail? To house another 5,455 people who haven't been convicted of anything? To house more people who will be abused and then sue the county for millions? So we can have a bigger and more efficient criminal-training institute?
So we can spend $900 million of taxpayers' money on a system that will neither rehabilitate nor deter criminals from offending again?
When are we going to stop indulging the fantasies of this little boy whom we pat on the head, call "Sheriff Joe" and give pocket money to? When are we going to ground him and tell him to pick up his room, let him know that in the world of adults you can't just do what you want?
It'll probably happen when his pocket money becomes too much for us grown-ups. It will not be his cruelty and arrogance that bring Arpaio down. It will be his ineptitude. As time goes on, and the money goes out, and the crime rate stays the same, the public will have to look for a sheriff who spends more time fighting crime than playing cop.
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