If you want a guaranteed spit-take, take a gulp of coffee while watching Sheriff Joe Arpaio's first campaign commercial of the general election, which just began running on local TV stations.
It opens with images of brown and black men in orange jumpsuits as a faceless narrator intones, "Some cities let their criminals out because their jails are too crowded."
Arpaio then appears on the screen, walking beside a barbed wire-topped fence, telling viewers that he would never do that, which is why he created Tent City, an outside enclosure separate from the jails, 23 years ago.
"That's part of my commitment to you," says Joe. "Keeping our communities safe. And the best part: It saves taxpayers millions of dollars every year."
The narrator closes it out, saying, "Joe Arpaio: Fiscally conservative. Tough on crime."
Fiscally conservative? That's a hoot. Arpaio has been notoriously profligate with taxpayers' money over the years, once poaching $100 million from two voter-protected jail funds in order to finance his anti-immigrant roundups.
Add to that the endless parade of lawsuits over needless deaths and injuries in the jails and Arpaio's abuses of power while in office — not to mention the price of complying with a federal judge's order in the civil-rights case Melendres v. Arpaio. Altogether, the court cases have cost the county more than $150 million and counting.
As for being "tough on crime," that's a laugh as well, particularly in light of the fact that Arpaio and his chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, were recently referred by federal Judge G. Murray Snow for criminal prosecution. The first status conference in the criminal case, involving the defendants and lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice, is scheduled for October 11.
And the ad's big theme — that Tent City is keeping criminals locked up who otherwise might be roaming the streets of Phoenix — is also a big joke. The number of prisoners in Joe's jails is down. In fact, the jail population has been trending down for several years now, falling from 127,842 bookings in 2007 to 103,210 bookings projected for 2016, according to documents from Maricopa County's fiscal-year 2017 budget. That's about a 20 percent decrease.
The same documents note that jail revenue is declining, with cities and towns booking fewer inmates into the county jail, and the MCSO collecting less money as a result.
And the Melendres case is taking a direct bite out of the MCSO's budget. Following the recent imposition of yet more requirements from Judge Snow — owing to Arpaio's inability and/or refusal to follow through on previous court orders — the MCSO had to cough up an additional $8 million out of its FY 2017 budget to pay for them.
As a result, a $4.7 million retention plan for detention officers, which involved a pay raise for these men and women in uniform, had to be diverted in order to implement reforms arising from Melendres. (The remainder of the tab came from the MCSO's general fund.) The board of supervisors approved this diversion, as recommended by MCSO brass, on September 7.
No wonder Joe's line troops are pissed. On September 8, an anonymous letter of "no confidence" was e-mailed to Sheridan and other MCSO muck-a-mucks, causing quite a stir at headquarters. Addressed to the sheriff, it's signed by "MCSO Employees who do the right thing" and offers a withering assessment of the current state of affairs at the sheriff's department.
The e-mail berates Arpaio for bringing disrepute on all MCSO employees in uniform:
"Because of your shameful practices, the citizens of Maricopa County, those whom we are entrusted to serve and protect both on the street and in the jails, believe we are corrupt and unprofessional. We believe it is important that they not confuse you, with us. Those terms only apply to you."
The missive covers concerns that MCSO detention officers and deputies previously have related to me, alleging, "Our jail facilities are dangerously understaffed, running continual overtime to keep the inmates and officers safe."
It also states that there is a solution, one that political reasons Arpaio refuses to implement: shutter Tent City.
"Your recent decision to keep the nearly empty Tent City Jail open for your continued political gain sacrifices desperately needed detention officer positions in other areas and is unsafe," the e-mail states. "There is plenty of bed space to move those inmates and officers inside, which would increase staffing in our jails."
I have heard the same from my sources, and I have submitted public-records requests to the MCSO in order to nail down the specifics.
The claim is credible, given the diminishing jail population.
I contacted MCSO spokesman Chris Hegstrom to ask whether the MCSO had received the letter and whether the sheriff's office had any reply.
"The letter you refer to has been received," Hegstrom e-mailed back. "As for a response to the allegations, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is not going to respond to an anonymous letter which is written during an election cycle. Contact the author of the letter for comment."
Hegstrom did confirm one of the letter's allegations, or part of it. The letter states that Mike Olson, the MCSO's chief of custody, is on administrative leave for "not coming to work." Hegstrom admitted that Olson is on leave "while an Administrative Investigation is conducted," but he would not comment on the nature of the investigation.
For the record, I did e-mail the address the letter was sent from, firstname.lastname@example.org. As yet, no one has responded.
Talk-radio hosts Mike Broomhead and Chris Merrill of KFYI (550 AM) were the first to report on the letter, discussing it last week on their respective shows after someone forwarded it to the station. Both noted the red flag raised by the letter's anonymity. But both men seemed to understand that if the letter is legitimate, the cloak of anonymity would be necessary. And I agree, given Arpaio's well-deserved reputation for retaliating against his critics.
"If 10 percent of your employees feel this way about you, that's pretty big," Broomhead said of the letter on his show. "If it's 20 percent, 25 percent, does it start changing the minds of voters?"
Merrill said the letter's specificity makes him believe it isn't the work of some random individual, and that it possibly demonstrates the level of discontent among MCSO employees and might mean "the unraveling of Sheriff Joe's legacy."
Such speculation is itself significant during an election year, given that KFYI is a conservative talk station with a loyal following among Valley Republicans — the very folks who make up Arpaio's base.
My sources at the sheriff's office tell me that morale at the agency is at an all-time low, and that the letter, regardless of who wrote it, accurately mirrors their angst at the prospect of Arpaio's re-election. Put bluntly, they want Arpaio's rival, Democrat Paul Penzone, to win in November and put an end to their misery.
Penzone campaign spokesperson Stacy Pearson said she hadn't read the letter until I sent it to her. I asked if anyone in the Penzone camp might have been involved in the e-mail. She said no, and added that the Penzone camp had heard similar complaints from MCSO employees.
"This memo echoes the unsolicited horror stories we're hearing regularly from deputies and detention officers," Pearson told me. "They're being denied equipment, training, support, and compensation. It's unacceptable and unsustainable."
Read the verbatim text of the anonymous letter of no-confidence to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio:
Date: September 8, 2016 at 11:36:31 AM MST
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Subject: OPEN LETTER TO SHERIFF ARPAIO FROM MCSO EMPLOYEES
Sheriff Arpaio, even with the presence of court-appointed monitors and a federal court order, we are forced to write this letter anonymously due to the retaliation that occurs under your reign of terror, as we are forbidden to express our opinions. Not only have you brought wrath the community you are sworn to protect, you have also brought wrath upon your employees. This letter has been written by your employees' and shall serve as the voice of the vast majority of your 3000+ employees: detention officers, deputies, and civilians.
Because of your shameful practices, the citizens of Maricopa County, those whom we are entrusted to serve and protect both on the street and in the jails, believe we are corrupt and unprofessional. We believe it is important that they not confuse you, with us. Those terms only apply to you. You will do anything and everything for media recognition and political gain, no matter the impact it has on the community or your employees.
Our jail facilities are dangerously understaffed, running continual overtime to keep the inmates and officers safe. There is a solution to this, but you refuse to do it. Our deputies are tired of being called racists because of the decisions you have made. Sergeants are chained to chairs, unable to help their people because of the court orders imposed on MCSO, again because you chose politics over policing. You blame the court and the monitors, but we blame you for thumbing your nose at the court, thus saddling the taxpayers with this tremendous expense for years to come. The irony, as several years ago you rolled out your "Integrity, Accountability, Community" initiative. Those words do not apply to you, Sheriff.
Your recent decision to keep the nearly empty Tent City Jail open for your continued political gain sacrifices desperately needed detention officer positions in other areas and is unsafe. There is plenty of bed space to move those inmates and officers inside, which would increase staffing in our jails. You have suddenly become a voice for jailed veterans when the truth is that you see this as a way to garner more votes. A well-devised plan, but devised for the wrong reasons. You spent money to put flags on inmate uniforms for no reason other than personal media attention. You have to come up with taxpayer money to pay the fees for the racial profiling lawsuit that you lost. Safety is not your priority, politics and name recognition are, as evidenced by your name being on every vehicle or document within our organization. What a ridiculous expense to the taxpayers. There is more to your lack of leadership: According to the news, Executive Chief Mike Olson is on admin leave with pay for not coming to work. He has a very large annual salary and has been absent for years.
As reported on the news and in a recent mandatory internal training document, you have now lost control of your Professional Standards Bureau because you and select members of this organization lack integrity. Within that recent internal training document, we note the following:
"The court found that the Defendants failures were in bad faith." "The court also found that MCSO knowingly attempted to deceive the Monitor Team at the July 20, 2015 meeting." "The Court found that MCSO's Seattle Investigation involving Mr. Montgomery demonstrates Sheriff Arpaio's many intentional misstatements under oath and his attitude of hostility toward the Court's orders." "The Court also found that Chief Deputy Sheridan also knowingly made misstatements of fact under oath about the Montgomery Investigation." "MCSO failed to conduct adequate internal investigations." "The mishandling of investigations by Chief Deputy Sheridan and/or Chief Olson..." This list goes on and on.
Sheriff, the key words here are "bad faith, knowingly, and intentionally." You claim to the media that there is a conspiracy against you, but this fact is quite clear: the only conspiracies around here are the ones you continue to propagate. It has become complete bedlam with all the infighting amongst your senior aides. Paranoia, distrust, and disrespect run rampant. You've lost control of our organization, Sheriff, and you've long lost the respect of "your" employees. We find you unfit to lead this organization, as you and your Chief Deputy have admitted to civil contempt charges and are now facing possible criminal charges. You continue to openly state "I support my Chief Deputy." Oddly enough, you supported your former Chief Deputy, as well. He was fired for lying, but only after an investigation by another agency after the information became public. We see a trend here.
It is well documented that some years ago you siphoned nearly $90 million from the voter-approved Detention Fund for use in other components of MCSO, which you were forced to pay back. You failed to investigate hundreds of sex crimes; instead choosing to assemble raid teams to arrest mom and pop "illegals" who were working menial jobs. You left victims of the worst types of crimes all alone, while instead focusing on detaining legal members of our community who did not deserve to be victimized by you. You violated their rights. You champion yourself as a national voice on illegal immigration, but we know the truth: it is all about personal media attention. You may fool the public but you cannot fool us. We are against illegal immigration, but we believe in only enforcing the law within the proper scope of our authority. It is unfortunate you do not share the same sentiments.
You've investigated anyone who disagrees with you, including Maricopa County board members and their staff, Superior Court judges and their staff, and other government officials and their staff. The cost of these investigations, subsequent lawsuits, and their settlements have cost taxpayers untold millions. The total cost to taxpayers for all of the things you have done is hard to estimate, but many place that cost close to $200 million dollars, just over the last 10-15 years. That toll continues to rise every day. If that isn't enough, you are still "investigating" a Presidential birth certificate, and you continue to brag about it.
Once this letter gets out, you may hold a press conference and force your commanders to stand behind you on stage to make it look like they support you, but if they have any honor or personal integrity, they will speak their minds for the citizens of Maricopa County, and the employees who work tirelessly to do the right thing. Don't worry Sheriff; we will keep doing our jobs even though you can't do yours because we are the true public servants. We care about the communities we serve and the job that is entrusted unto us. You only care about yourself. We ask that you stop referring to us as "your deputies and detention officers." We don't work for you, we work for the people.
It is time for you to go, and for all the reasons stated above, we give you an eternal vote of NO CONFIDENCE. You can tell your chiefs to stand down. We will not do anything to hurt the public trust and safety; we will not strike, we will not walk out. We are better than you.
The MCSO Employees who do the right thing.
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