The Joe Show Documents a Measly Sheriff's Rise to Celebrity and Power-Abusing Tyranny

Most places in the United States aren't dominated by a single personality. Sure, in Washington, President Obama's every movement is news, and in New York, it's Gotham's mayor who garners the most media time.

Yet here, in the nation's sixth-biggest city and fourth-biggest county, not a week goes by that we are not told — usually more than once — that Sheriff Joe Arpaio bestrides Maricopa County like a two-bit colossus with a bad haircut.

I'm reminded of Arpaio's media dominance whenever I visit Los Angeles, which has a pantheon of movie stars to worship and couldn't care less whether, on any given day, any of its public servants drop dead in their morning oatmeal.

But once you return to Maricopa County, the incessant drumbeat of Arpaio's name begins again, and it's nearly impossible to escape.

Directly or indirectly, you will know what stunts Arpaio pulled, what new outrage he's responsible for.

And you ignore him at your peril.

For while he's raiding a chicken farm with Steven Seagal or declaring Obama's birth certificate a fraud, he's also misspending more than $100 million of taxpayer funds, racially profiling a third of our residents, and ensuring that his jails are places where pre-trial detainees — presumed innocent under our judicial system — die horrific deaths at the hands of detention officers or fellow inmates.

How a power-abusing scoundrel such as Arpaio turned the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office into a 20-year-plus reign of self-aggrandizement is the subject of a new documentary, aptly named The Joe Show, which will have its world première on Wednesday, February 26, at the Sedona International Film Festival.

The work of Phoenix-based director/producer Randy Murray of Randy Murray Productions, the film has been eight years in the making and features behind-the-scenes glimpses into Arpaio and top flack Lisa Allen's cartoonish manipulations of the media.

These include a humdinger from 2005, when the MCSO moved about 2,000 inmates to a new jail, handcuffed together and stripped to their Arpaio-mandated pink underwear, as TV cameras gobbled up the spectacle.

"I want you to look tough," Allen advises Joe before the prisoners in pink flip-flops march past. "Just stand there and watch 'em. Tap your foot."

The stunt works like a charm, attracting national attention, with Arpaio's giving a phone interview to right-wing Fox News host Sean Hannity and, afterward, confiding to the filmmakers how easy it all was.

"I knew, Lisa knew, the minute we put these guys in the pink underwear, that will be what goes on the air," Arpaio says. "Do you really think that no one is going to show these guys in their pink underwear?"

And so it goes, from Tent City and all-female chain gangs to "Inmate Idol" talent competitions and posse members' doing dragnets for a lost pet ostrich in Cave Creek.

With prisoners in stripes as extras, Allen and Arpaio offer journalists pre-packaged, ready-for-TV tales, for which the sheriff is rewarded with more name recognition than God.

At one point, Arpaio proudly shows off a room adjacent to his office where he keeps bankers boxes filled with newspaper clippings and shelves lined with videos of his TV appearances.

That such stardom assists in Arpaio's re-election efforts is a no-brainer. Arpaio becomes "the world's most famous sheriff" and "America's toughest sheriff."

One of the documentary's talking heads, famed broadcaster Larry King, comments on Arpaio's ubiquity.

"Who do I think of when I think of 'sheriff'?" King asks. "I think of Gunsmoke and him."

All this branding and image-pimping is prologue to a hypothetical question posed by Allen.

"He is a media hound — there's no doubt about it — but so what?" she shrugs. "So what that he's got this magic formula worked out that attracts media attention . . . The public seems to like what he does. The media likes it because it fills some empty air time. So what is the downside, exactly?"

Regular readers of this paper know the downside as well as they know Joe's bag of tricks.

But The Joe Show goes through some of the nadirs of Arpaio's rule for those outside the confines of Maricopa County.

Like in 2006, when immigration enforcement becomes yet another way for Arpaio to court controversy and get his mug on the tube.

Whole communities of color, such as the tiny town of Guadalupe, are targets of MCSO sweeps, and the Sheriff's Office begins diverting resources from basic cop work to immigration enforcement.

As Pulitzer-winning journalist Ryan Gabrielson, formerly of the East Valley Tribune, recounts for director Murray, that diversion had a devastating effect on MCSO response times and arrest rates.

"In 2006, the year that [the MCSO] started doing immigration enforcement, it plummeted [from 45 percent] to like 32 percent of the time they were arriving on time.

"In 2005, the arrest rate was about 10 percent. [In 2006], that had dropped to, like, 4 percent. The following year, in 2007, it had dropped for a time to 2.5 percent."

While more than $100 million surreptitiously was transferred into the MCSO's immigration crackdown and other pet projects, more than 400 sex crimes in El Mirage went un-investigated by the MCSO. We hear horrifying examples in the documentary from two young women victimized and denied justice.

Then there is Arpaio's retaliation against his critics and political enemies, the perp-walking of then-county Supervisor Don Stapley, the indictment of county Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, and the attack on this newspaper and its readers, with the 2007 nighttime arrests of New Times' co-founders, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.

As Lacey explains in an interview for the doc, subpoenas issued as a result of Arpaio's obsession with this paper were Orwellian in scope.

"They literally had a grand jury subpoena that demanded that we produce the identity of everyone who had read New Times online," says Lacey, who, along with Larkin, since has sold his interest in this paper.

In December, Lacey and Larkin's lawsuit against Arpaio and the county was settled for $3.75 million, one of numerous multimillion-dollar payouts because of Arpaio's penchant for revenge.

Additionally, Murray presents viewers with an agonizing parade of those who died in Arpaio's jails: Scott Norberg, Charles Agster, Deborah Braillard, Brian Crenshaw, and Marty Atencio, among others.

The deaths are a result of the MCSO's infamous "culture of cruelty," a notion that Arpaio henchwoman Allen ridicules throughout the documentary.

Scheduled to run on the Investigation Discovery cable channel this fall, the film covers a lot of ground in its one hour and 40 minutes, including Arpaio's probe of Obama's birth certificate (which Joe admits to his handlers is a way to pull in campaign donations), and the 2012 election cycle, from which Arpaio escapes with barely more than 50 percent of the vote.

It ends with the MCSO's becoming subject to the oversight of a court-appointed monitor thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union's big racial-profiling lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio.

Not that any ol' monitor's going to stop Joe's big show.

"I have to say the media, in their own way, [have] created me," Arpaio notes at one point. "They created me. You wanna say created a monster? To them, it probably is."

Joe's correct, only I'd amend his observation to include the public, especially those who vote, because without them, he might be playing parcheesi somewhere with fellow gray-heads, living out his days on his federal pension.

Instead, both the media and the electorate got the monster they wanted.

And were it not for the suffering of innocents, I'd say it was the monster they deserved.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons