Mesa Police Chief George Gascón stares down Sheriff Joe Arpaio

The police chief had stolen the spotlight, and the sheriff was furious.

It was a scorching hot day in late June, and dozens of demonstrators had turned up at a Maricopa County services complex in Mesa to protest the sheriff's immigration-enforcement tactics. Dozens more Mesa police officers monitored the situation, with most exploiting the shade of a nearby parking garage.

For Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed tough guy seeking his fifth term in office, it was supposed to be a banner day. For two months, Arpaio had threatened that he would ram one of his so-called "crime-suppression sweeps" down the throat of Mesa Police Chief George Gascón, the sheriff's most high-profile critic in law enforcement.

Gascón had publicly insisted that Arpaio give him notice of any such incursion, and on Tuesday, June 24, the Sheriff's Office delivered a letter to the Mesa PD saying a raid would take place two days later.

To refer to what Arpaio and his deputies have been doing as "sweeps" to prevent crime is far from the truth.

The sheriff's enforcement efforts in Phoenix, Guadalupe, his hometown of Fountain Hills, and Mesa have been little more than roundups of Mexicans and anybody who looks Mexican. Arpaio's deputies have used a special arrangement with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency like no other local police force in the country.

His ICE-trained deputies focus on dilapidated vehicles and the most minor traffic violations in the hope of stopping — and ultimately getting deported — people who are in the country illegally. The heavy-handed tactics have brought accusations of racial profiling from civil rights leaders and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.

A politician who at first steered clear of the immigration debate, Arpaio has tried to tap into the frustration over illegal immigration that has caused voters over the past four years to deny certain rights and public benefits to undocumented residents.

Gascón, a Cuban immigrant and a former assistant chief at the Los Angeles Police Department, had already bumped heads with the sheriff over a November roundup in Mesa, ordering a spokesman to slam Arpaio for his high-handed tactics. Gascón continued to egg Arpaio in the press, sniping that the sheriff "can't keep his jails open, yet he can arrest cooks and gardeners."

When Arpaio, and the news media, tipped off Gascón to his upcoming plan for another sweep in Mesa, the chief was ready.

The sheriff had planned initially to make an appearance at the operation's field headquarters, a county office near Baseline Road and U.S. 60. But Gascón swamped the area with 132 Mesa police officers. They worked in shifts because of the extreme heat, most on foot and some on bicycles, in cars and on building rooftops.

Whether it was Gascón's intention or not, the show of force made the Sheriff's Office look like the puny kid on the block — a wimp who needed George Gascón's protection.

The chief told the news media that he had meant only to provide security for both sheriff's deputies and demonstrators, mindful of the civil unrest that had brewed in recent months during similar protests in central Phoenix and Guadalupe.

"While they were in Guadalupe, the sheriff himself stated publicly he had moved his command post the second night because he felt that their safety was in jeopardy," Gascón told New Times in an interview after the Mesa sweep. "We wanted to make sure that their safety in the city of Mesa was going to get protected."

As deputies in patrol cars fanned out across the city looking for illegal immigrants, demonstrators at the corner of Lewis and Javelina Avenue chanted "Si se puede," held signs that likened Arpaio's deputies to Nazis, and rallied with the help of a portable stage provided by Radio Campesina.

The event pulled in far fewer demonstrators than the 400 expected by Mesa police, but it was attended by pro-immigrant, anti-Arpaio heavy hitters, from activist Salvador Reza to Democratic candidate for sheriff Dan Saban.

About 4:30, Gascón emerged from his portable command trailer to check on his troops. Tall and lean in his dark-blue uniform, wearing stylish sunglasses beneath his crop of silver hair, he strolled across the street followed by the news media. The crowd of protesters on the corner hooted and cheered when they caught sight of him. Suddenly a celebrity, Gascón smiled.

Apparently not wanting to be upstaged at his own operation, Arpaio chose to bluster to news reporters from the security of his headquarters in downtown Phoenix's Wells Fargo Center — 20 miles away from the action. Before TV cameras, he appeared crazed with anger at the surprisingly more media-savvy Gascón. He had been beaten at his own game.

The sheriff has been ticked off a lot lately.

He was livid in May when Governor Janet Napolitano took away more than $1 million in state funding for his immigration operations, and he was spitting mad at the mayor of Guadalupe who, after his operation there, got in his face, firmly telling him his sweeps are not welcome in her heavily Latino town.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.