A recall committee that includes several prominent defense attorneys and the founders of the political action group Mothers Against Arpaio plans to launch a Recall Joe Arpaio campaign to coincide with a PBS television special critical of the sheriff scheduled to air in early March.
"We are very serious about this," says Linda Saville, co-founder of Mothers Against Arpaio. You may remember that MAA -- whose members' loved ones were killed, maimed or otherwise mistreated in Arpaio's gulags -- protested fiercely last fall against the brain-addled geezer's reelection.
But don't think for a moment that the recall group is composed of just the usual Arpaio naysayers. Its chairman is to be the wife of Maricopa County Deputy Sean Pearce, who was shot last December in a SWAT raid gone bad.
Pearce has been highly critical of Arpaio's handling of the SWAT team, saying the sheriff placed the public and deputies in unnecessary danger by reducing the number of personnel on the team just after his reelection.
The injured deputy's wife, Melissa Pearce, is to be the point person for Recall Joe Arpaio. Melissa isn't afraid of a fight. She angrily brushed off Arpaio and his top aide, Chief Deputy David Hendershott, after they went to the hospital to see Pearce and another deputy who had been wounded in the shootout.
Melissa and Sean Pearce are part of a well-connected family with strong political and religious affiliations.
Sean's father is state Representative Russell K. Pearce, who has long been a powerful political force in the East Valley and is currently chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Russell Pearce also served as a Maricopa County sheriff's deputy for 23 years, including a stint as chief deputy. He received the Medal of Valor after being shot and critically wounded by a gang member.
Russell Pearce is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormon leaders are noted around here for their ability to muster votes. Mormonism also happens to be the religion practiced by former Republican gubernatorial candidate Matt Salmon, who has a major ax to grind with Outlaw Joe.
Now chairman of the state Republican party, Salmon is bitter over fellow Republican Arpaio's endorsement of Democrat Janet Napolitano in the final stages of the 2002 governor's race. The election was a cliffhanger, and many Republicans believe Arpaio's television commercial supporting Napolitano was the difference in the race.
Arpaio could find himself at the center of the perfect storm.
He could be in the middle of a three-way squeeze from disgruntled East Valley Republicans, angry employees (remember also that the union that represents Arpaio's own sheriff's deputies backed his opponent in the September Republican primary) and infuriated relatives of those he's abused in the jails.
I say to these intrepid recall folks: Bring it on!
Arpaio could have trouble surviving a recall election where his dreadful policies and performance aren't obscured by other races on the ballot.
The recall effort couldn't come at a more critical time. To those who were disappointed that Arpaio wasn't unseated by retired Mesa police commander Dan Saban, it seemed that all was lost. That Arpaio would be around for four more years.
Now, there's hope.
Arpaio has repeatedly displayed disregard for basic constitutional protections. His arrogant dismissal of civil rights protections has created a hostile climate inside his jails where death, serious injury, starvation and illness are the norm.
The sheriff's latest intrusion into personal privacy is his new policy of asking traffic violators to "voluntarily" provide fingerprints to be entered into a database and shared with other law enforcement agencies. Upon learning of this notion, defense attorneys and civil rights advocates immediately reminded Arpaio that the policy is illegal.
But Outlaw Joe doesn't care. This is a guy who wanted to set up illegal roadblocks on highways leading into Maricopa County to search vehicles for drugs. That idea was shot down a dozen years ago by former county attorney Rick Romley.
Arpaio is eager to violate the law in his quest to be hailed as "America's Toughest Sheriff."
The public can't wait for gutless members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to do anything about the geriatric renegade, such as conducting a thorough financial and performance audit of the sheriff's office.
Nor can the public put faith in state, federal and county prosecutors to conduct probes into a mountain of serious allegations of wrongdoing. None of these officials appears to have the slightest interest in investigating Arpaio's wayward department.
There's only one option: Recall Joe Arpaio.
Nothing would inject more fear into the sheriff than a recall campaign similar to the one that led to the impeachment of former governor Evan Mecham.
The Mecham recall was given little chance of success in its early days by the mainstream media. The two dominant daily newspapers in the Valley at the time, the Arizona Republic and the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette (where I was working at the time as a business writer), dismissed the recall effort as amateurish.
But the recall -- which was spearheaded by gay activist Ed Buck -- tapped into a huge reservoir of discontent undetected by so-called political experts. The recall was successful; the only reason there wasn't a recall election was that the Arizona Legislature impeached the hapless Mecham.
Once again, all the ingredients are in place for a recall that this time would jettison the 72-year-old Arpaio from his expensive 19th-floor office atop the Wells Fargo tower in downtown Phoenix and send him shuffling back to his pricey home in Fountain Hills, where he could spend his retirement feeding quarters into the slot machines at the nearby Fort McDowell Casino along with other seniors.
Just because Arpaio won reelection doesn't mean he has insurmountable support. He had to campaign hard against Saban in the GOP primary to win 55.9 percent of the vote, the lowest winning margin of his infamous career.
A partisan primary and a recall election are two different creatures.
A recall campaign isn't restricted by party affiliation. Any registered voter can sign a recall petition and vote in a recall election. If Saban's 101,000 Republican supporters join forces with several hundred thousand Democrats and Independents in a countywide recall effort, Arpaio will be toast.
A recall is a relatively easy course of action.
What's needed is a dedicated core of workers, a great Web site and $300,000 to pay workers to collect the 283,300 signatures within 120 days needed to trigger the vote.
Even more enticing is that there are no campaign contribution limits to a recall campaign. Hence, the angry survivors of someone killed inside Arpaio's jail could throw in a large sum of cash to fuel the effort.
A well-run, Web-based operation modeled after Vermont Governor Howard Dean's presidential campaign would be the template for a successful grassroots fund-raising effort. Who even needs the daily newspapers to get the message across? The Web is far cheaper and more effective for communicating important specialized information and for quickly raising large sums of cash.
Those involved in this movement aren't likely to let Arpaio's despicable history of intimidation of political opponents scare them from taking direct action to kick him out of office. Most of them have seen political fights up close before and will consider a Recall Joe movement a hell of a lot of fun.
Let the party begin!
There are many reasons Arpaio should be removed from office, and removed as soon as possible.
Foremost is that this demented cretin is an increasingly dangerous threat to the safety and security of the three million-plus people living in Maricopa County.
Not only has he failed to fulfill his primary duty as sheriff -- which is to safely operate the county jails -- he has undermined the ability of law enforcement agencies in the county to implement anti-terrorism security measures mandated by the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Arpaio's decision to disband the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's SWAT team last December is sending shock waves through law enforcement circles, and jeopardizing a countywide plan to have eight highly trained and heavily fortified rapid-response teams poised to react to terrorist attacks.
This puts the citizens of the county at unnecessary risk, says Fred Taylor, a Republican party official who served as a special criminal justice assistant to former governor Fife Symington.
Taylor says "Maricopa County's probably the most vulnerable county in the country" to a terrorist attack because of its large geographic size, proximity to a porous international border and potential prime targets like the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, the world's largest commercial nuclear plant.
Arpaio, Taylor says, has alienated other law enforcement agencies with his cowboy mentality, which makes it difficult to develop a coordinated law enforcement effort.
"Nobody works with Joe," Taylor tells me. "You can't find me one chief of police in Maricopa County who will support Joe."
Indeed, every law enforcement group in Arizona backed Saban in the primary.
Arpaio's credibility took another hit when he began dismantling the SWAT team soon after he won reelection in November. Although I made fun of MCSO's SWAT officers for an inept raid on an Ahwatukee home last summer (a house was burned down, a puppy incinerated, and MCSO's armored personnel carrier smashed into a parked car), the squad before that had enjoyed a good national reputation.
Soon after the election, Arpaio launched a massive shakeup within the sheriff's office, and about 300 officers and civilians were reassigned to new duties. Several of the deputies moved off the SWAT team had openly supported Arpaio's Republican primary opponent, Saban. The transfers, including those of two SWAT commanders, were seen inside the department as retaliation.
The turmoil created tremendous stress among the remaining members of the SWAT team as they readied for a December 16 raid on a mobile home in search of a murder suspect.
A shootout ensued, and two sheriff's deputies were seriously wounded. The deputies -- Sean Pearce and Lew Argetsinger -- have since criticized Arpaio's decision to transfer key personnel from the team and reduce training. Both men told the East Valley Tribune after the shootout that they expected retribution from the sheriff's office for speaking out.
The Tribune quoted the men as saying they agreed to talk because they believe Arpaio's reorganization of the SWAT team and other changes put the lives of deputies and the public at greater risk.
Soon after the gunfight, Arpaio disbanded the entire SWAT team. And, typically, Arpaio launched a witch hunt. He called for an internal investigation of SWAT and ordered its former officers not to discuss the reorganization.
Despite the turmoil and his publicly disbanding the squad, Arpaio suddenly claimed the other day that he has a fully functioning SWAT team, after all. And, guess what? It's eligible for a $350,000 federal Homeland Security grant, he maintained.
Law enforcement experts say this is impossible, since the MCSO would have to all but start from scratch after eliminating the unit. It takes years of highly specialized team training, they say, to create an efficient and effective strike squad.
As for the grant, it's supposed to fund a highly specialized emergency-response unit capable of operating sophisticated equipment that could be used in the event of a terrorist attack.
The City of Phoenix is managing a program to create eight crack response teams scattered across the county. Phoenix is expected to supply personnel for three of these units, but has only enough manpower to fully staff two. The third was to be manned by members of the sheriff's office's SWAT and bomb squads.
Now serious questions have been raised over whether the MCSO can fulfill this mission. Skeptics say it appears the sheriff's office is merely seeking the money to provide basic training for an entirely new SWAT team -- which is not what the grant is intended to do.
Jake Jacobson, executive director of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a police labor union, says Arpaio is attempting to deceive federal and state authorities by falsely claiming he has a SWAT team capable of handling the duties required by the Homeland Security grant's specifications.
"It's a farce!" Jacobson declares. "To us, it borders on criminal that he's trying to take this money under the guise he has a SWAT team when, in reality, he doesn't."
MCSO supporters will quickly dismiss Jacobson's comments, claiming he's trying to undermine Arpaio in any way possible because the sheriff refuses to negotiate contracts with police unions. But other officials involved in the Homeland Security grant also are wary of the sheriff's office's handling of its SWAT team and the application for the grant.
Marcus Aurelius, emergency management coordinator overseeing Homeland Security grant applications in Phoenix, says he's also concerned over whether any new sheriff's SWAT team is qualified to receive the money.
"This thing is not over with. It's not a done deal," Aurelius says about whether the MCSO will get the money. "We're moving forward with things based upon what we have been told [by sheriff's office brass]. They are either correct in their statements, or they're not. If they're not, they're going to be held accountable for that."
SWATgate is the latest in a long and twisted avenue of screw-ups by Arpaio since he was first elected in 1992.
The most recent and expensive misadventure has been his failure to staff two new state-of-the-art jails.
Taxpayers have spent more than $500 million to build the facilities with more than 3,200 beds. Yet the jails remain virtually unused because Arpaio has been unable to fill more than 1,200 detention officer vacancies needed to safely operate the new facilities.
It's not as if the need for additional detention officers is a surprise.
Arpaio has had seven years to make sure there would be enough detention officers to open the jails. Voters first approved a 1/5th-of-a-cent sales tax for jail construction and operations in 1998. In 2002, voters extended the jail tax through 2027. The sales tax was projected to generate several billion dollars to build and operate new criminal justice facilities in the county.
In an effort to attract detention officers, the county has raised starting pay to about $32,000 a year and lowered the employment age to 18. In recent months, there has been an increase in the number of detention officers getting trained. However, attrition remains high, and the overall shortfall of guards remains about the same as it was a year ago.
Working conditions inside the operating jails are horrible, with many guards working extra shifts. The county also is competing for qualified applicants with far more professional police agencies in the Valley.
The result is, few qualified applicants with any common sense want to work for a vengeful and paranoid boss like Arpaio.
"If employees speak out against the sheriff, they can almost be assured that an internal investigation will be undertaken and any prime position they have will be in jeopardy of being lost," says Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, a trade and lobbying group that represents scores of police employee groups throughout the state.
Opening the new jails and quickly completing the planned remodeling of Madison Street Jail would greatly reduce the horrendous overcrowding in county lockups and help settle claims in an ongoing federal class-action lawsuit that has been before the U.S. District Court in Phoenix for 28 years.
There are about 3,000 sentenced inmates and 6,000 pretrial detainees jammed into county jails built to house 5,200 prisoners. Arpaio purposely keeps the jail population higher than necessary by refusing to use effective diversion programs that other counties, including Pima, have used for years.
These programs have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars because they reduce the need for new jails. But Arpaio wants to pack as many people in jail as possible. This generates income for the sheriff's office from fees paid by cities, the state and the federal government for holding prisoners.
Arpaio is so obsessed with keeping the jails full that he frequently targets parents who fail to pay child support for arrest and incarceration.
While I have a very low opinion of parents who skip out on obligations to pay for their children, I don't understand Arpaio's rationale for locking up these people. He keeps such parents incarcerated until they somehow come up with money to make good on delinquent child-support payments.
How in the hell can a parent do that when he or she isn't working? This illustrates that Arpaio isn't about solving the problem -- he couldn't care less about the kids of these parents while they rot in jail.
This is just another way to keep citizens crammed in his clinks. That way, Arpaio not only generates funds, he gets to claim that treating these minor lawbreakers like hardened criminals is protecting a public apparently frightened senseless by the threat of crime.
Just last month, still another inmate died unnecessarily because of bungling by Arpaio's detention officers, including their failure to communicate with Correctional Health Services, which is supposed to provide health care to county jail prisoners.
The January 23 death of Deborah Braillard is especially shocking because it was easily preventable. All the 46-year-old woman needed was her insulin to treat her severe diabetes.
The MCSO's line is that the woman didn't tell jail medical staff that she was diabetic when she was booked. But her daughter, Jennifer Braillard, doesn't believe this claim, saying her mother was no fool and knew she had to have insulin daily or she would quickly become sick.
Jailers say they thought she was a drug addict. They apparently never bothered to look at her medical records. If they had, they would have seen she was given insulin every day during a two-month jail stint in the winter of 2003-2004.
The timeline of Deborah Braillard's last hours of consciousness vividly reveals the callous disregard of human life inside Arpaio's lockups.
She was picked up on a probation violation, charged with possession of illegal drugs, and jailed on the evening of January 2. Nurses were in her cellblock two times on January 3 and once on the morning of January 4. There is no record they examined her or provided her insulin.
By 3:30 p.m. on January 4, Braillard was complaining to detention officers that she was having trouble breathing and feeling sick. A nurse came through the pod at 7 that evening, but did not treat Braillard, records indicate.
Braillard's condition continued to deteriorate that night. By 3:15 a.m. on January 5, a detention officer wrote in a security report that Braillard was "kicking and was groaning/yelling" so loudly that she was waking other inmates in the dormitory.
Instead of seeking medical help, detention officers moved her to another room, where her agonizing screams would not disturb other inmates. Despite Braillard's obvious pain, there is no record that a nurse who came through the pod at 7 a.m. treated her. An hour later, Braillard was moved back to her bunk in the dormitory.
Jennifer Braillard tells me she didn't even know her mother was in jail until the night of January 4, when she learned of her mother's plight from some friends.
Worried about her mother's health, Jennifer says she called the jail as soon as the switchboard opened about 7 a.m. on January 5. She wanted to make sure they knew her mother was diabetic.
"I told them this was very important, and I also told them the type of insulin she needed," she says.
It's unclear whether Jennifer Braillard's call triggered detention officers to do something, or if Deborah Braillard's condition had deteriorated so much that it was no longer possible to ignore her plight. Jennifer Braillard says she's been told that jailers found her mother face-down on the floor.
Sheriff's records indicate that Deborah Braillard was finally transferred to a medical ward by wheelchair at 10:05 a.m. on January 5.
After her early-morning January 5 call to the jail, Jennifer Braillard says she never heard another word from Arpaio's detention officers concerning the condition of her mother. It wasn't until the evening of January 6 that she received an update.
It was bad news.
"The hospital called me and said to get there immediately, that she was in ICU," Jennifer recalls. "They told me she was in a diabetic coma."
Her mother drifted in and out of consciousness before finally dying on January 23.
Naturally, Jennifer blames the county jail for the needless death of her mother.
"Five days without insulin is ridiculous!" she says. "If they provided the care that she needed, she would not be dead."
Fact is, Arpaio is not concerned that another inmate has died because of deplorable neglect. He told me soon after he was first elected in 1992 that his job is to lock people up and take away their rights. Period.
Including, apparently, their right to live.
Joe Arpaio thinks it's good publicity for the public to hear about the atrocious conditions inside his jails. He says he's deterring crime.
The truth is, despite his jails being considered among the worst in the world by Amnesty International, their harsh reality has done nothing to reduce the sky-high property-crime rate in Maricopa County -- which is among the highest in the nation.
Meanwhile, Arpaio has botched his chief responsibilities as sheriff. He's wasted so much time with idiotic ideas that it makes me wonder if rumors circulating in Republican party circles that the 72-year-old's suffering from dementia are true.
What legitimate purpose did it serve for Arpaio to have John Walsh, a television crime show host, fly to Phoenix along with Walsh's eight-member support staff to conduct a meaningless swearing-in ceremony?
All the other county elected officials were content to be quietly sworn into office in late December. But not Arpaio.
He needed to have his ego stroked by diverting deputies, support staff and God knows how much money for the pomp and circumstance that featured the America's Most Wanted personality.
I wanted to attend this foolish event in late January to see what morons would set aside time from their day to kiss Arpaio's ass. But I was turned away at the parking lot of the sheriff's training center, as toothless local broadcast and daily newspaper reporters were welcomed inside.
"This is a secure event, and you're not on the list," a smartly dressed deputy told me after I provided my business card. "You'll have to turn around and exit."
I complied with the orders, knowing that I'm already considered a "threat" to the sheriff's safety. See, I've dared to ask him such questions as why he hides his personal finances from the public and why he treats celebrity prisoners -- such as crooner Glen Campbell and pro sports mogul Jerry Colangelo's daughter -- royally while those without connections get the patented tough-guy treatment.
After last fall's primary election, I was immediately accosted by members of Arpaio's Threat Assessment Squad and escorted out of the county's elections department headquarters inside the Phoenix Civic Plaza under the threat of arrest because I asked the sheriff when he would release information I had sought under the Arizona Public Records law.
These are bullying tactics you would expect from what President Bush calls "axis of evil" nations -- not from the head of the fourth largest sheriff's department in the country.
For too long, political leaders in the state have been intimidated by Arpaio's swagger. They have been cowered into silence by his proven willingness to abuse his police authority and investigate political opponents, like Dan Saban, as if he were some two-bit Sudanese dictator ("In the Crosshairs," June 24, 2004).
He's scared nearly every political leader in the state, except U.S. Senator John McCain, who would love to have Arpaio's scalp attached to his belt.
McCain could play a pivotal role in a recall campaign. The Republican senior senator's endorsement of Dan Saban came late in the primary campaign last summer, and didn't have time to resonate with voters. If McCain backs the fledgling recall movement, it would give the effort immediate credibility.
Ironically, it's GOP members, not Democrats, who will likely lead the charge to send fellow Republican Arpaio packing.
It's very unlikely that Governor Janet Napolitano will take on Arpaio, although she has a golden opportunity at this moment to drive a stake through the sheriff's most high-profile idea ever -- the Tent City jail.
Nothing has generated more publicity and political support for Arpaio than his infamous tent complex, despite the fact that courts have called it an extremely dangerous facility.
Tent City has been in violation of the Arizona State Fire Code since the day it was first erected in 1993. The only reason it has been allowed to operate for the past 12 years is that the state fire marshal grants MCSO a variance every six months.
Another request for a variance is now on the desk of acting state fire marshal Bob Barger, who was appointed by Napolitano to succeed Duane Pell, who retired on December 31.
Pell tells me that the Fire Marshal's Office never expected Tent City to be permanent.
He says the variance was first approved in 1993 because the jails were overcrowded and because voters had turned down a bond issue to build new ones. But voters have since approved the 1/5th-cent jail tax, and two new jails have been built. More facilities are to be constructed in the future.
Pell says he would expect the Fire Marshal's Office to reexamine its policy to issue the variances as permanent jails are completed. The Fire Marshal's Office did not respond to my questions concerning such future variances.
But Pell made it clear that if Janet Napolitano asked the office to take any action concerning the tents, it would happen.
"If Governor Napolitano said we need to look at Tent City, I guarantee you there would be a couple of fire marshals out there looking at Tent City," Pell says.
The Governor's Office, however, also did not respond to my request for comment.
It's clear that Arpaio has no intention of ever closing down Tent City, despite the construction of new jails. No matter how much it costs taxpayers from settlements of numerous lawsuits filed by inmates. He keeps the tents open purely for public relations purposes.
Napolitano has the power to put an end to Arpaio's tent jails by ordering acting fire marshal Barger to deny the sheriff's request for a variance. If she can't muster the courage to cut Arpaio off at the pass, she could at least give him notice that this is the last variance that will be issued, and he has six months to get the new jails up and running.
I doubt Napolitano has the nerve to get into a face-off with Arpaio. After all, it was Arpaio who came to her rescue during that razor-close 2002 gubernatorial race with the television commercial.
Many Maricopa County Republicans remain livid over Arpaio's defection to Napolitano's camp in 2002, blaming him for Republican candidate Matt Salmon's narrow loss. The Maricopa County Republican Executive Guidance Committee -- which includes the top party bosses -- last year refused to endorse incumbent Arpaio and instead backed Saban.
This severely damaged Arpaio's campaign. He went from a 71 percent approval rating among Republican voters in the winter of 2004 to the narrow 55.9 percent victory over Saban in the primary.
Ominous for Arpaio is that Salmon was elected last month to be the new head of the Arizona Republican party. Salmon now has the clout to rally the troops and generate campaign funds to back the planned recall of the sheriff.
In an interview last summer, Salmon made it very clear how he feels about Arpaio.
"I don't respect him," Salmon said. "I don't think he's playing with a full deck."
I'm confident there will be a groundswell of support for a Recall Joe Arpaio campaign from a throng of outraged citizens, police and fire unions and, most important, key Republican party officials.
"I don't think we would have a problem getting the county executive guidance committee to vote to support a recall," says Bill Norton, Republican District 22 chairman.
It was Norton who started the Republican rebellion against Arpaio last year when District 22 voted overwhelmingly against endorsing the incumbent. Norton says he's more than ready to keep the revolution alive.
Arpaio, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has in the past repeatedly said he's only accountable to the people who elect him.
"I don't report to any bureaucrat, any politician or any governor," Arpaio said at a recent Republican women's luncheon that I attended in Scottsdale. "I report to the people."
Arpaio has used a series of clever public relations ploys to keep his name in front of the public. Such gimmicks as pink underwear, the mounted posse, chain gangs, and now the voluntary fingerprints at traffic stops are meant to project the image that he's keeping everyone safe and aggressively fighting crime.
"When he came into office, he implemented some ideas that were unusual and strange to the Valley, but that seemed to be effective, and people were responsive," says the Arizona Police Association's Brian Livingston.
But over time, Livingston says, Arpaio has "lost sight that he's here to serve the people, and not that the people are here to serve him."
The recall would be the ultimate test of Arpaio's political strength. If it is successful, he would have a choice of either resigning or standing for another election sometime late this year or early next year.
Waiting in the wings of a successful recall campaign is Dan Saban.
Saban, 48, says that while he's staying out of the recall campaign so as not to be accused of sour grapes, he's ready to challenge the elderly Arpaio at the ballot box.
Saban could hardly contain his excitement at the prospect of a recall and the opportunity to run against Joe sooner than the 2008 election.
"If they are successful with a recall effort," Saban says, "you bet I'd run against him again!"