We Sue the Coward of the County

Notorious former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates must have 50 IQ points on Joe Arpaio.

Don't get me wrong, Gates was just as tyrannical as the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America." He ran the LAPD as a paramilitary force.

The police chief who spawned the L.A. riots -- and lost his job as a result -- was bullheaded. He ran a department where cops considered it status quo to beat senseless an inebriated African-American motorist by the name of Rodney King after a high-speed chase.

I spent 15 years in L.A. before moving to Phoenix two years ago, and I can tell you that Gates and his police force were under investigation for much of the last decade of his career.

Not so Sheriff Joe.

Though prisoners have routinely died in Arpaio's lockups, his department's seldom been probed. As a newcomer, I wonder what level of thuggery under the color of authority would be necessary to get U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton's or Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley's attention.

We all know what it took to get ex-U.S. attorney and now Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano's.

Despite the fact that Arpaio's jail guards had made it possible for inmate Scott Norberg to smother in a jail restraint chair, after stun-gunning him more than 20 times (the county paid $8.5 million to settle a wrongful-death suit filed by Norberg's family), Napolitano stood with an unapologetic Arpaio on her last day in office as U.S. attorney and downplayed her own federal agency's investigation of the sheriff's office.

She sold out for a political favor from the public official who was then the most popular politician in Arizona, despite the numerous atrocities he had condoned. The U.S. attorney's probe went nowhere, and Janet got elected first as attorney general and then as governor. Arguably, it was because of Arpaio's endorsement that she was able to eke out a win over the nominee of Joe's own Republican Party, Matt Salmon, in the governor's race.

But before I get into how things have changed for Arpaio this election season, allow me to belabor the comparison between Arpaio and Gates.

Daryl Gates was every bit as power-crazed as Arpaio, but he wasn't a coward. Nor was he an arrogant fool.

In most cases, when reporters asked for public information from his department, he complied. It was the law that he comply. And when journalists asked him questions at confabs in public places, he at least feigned an answer. Hell, Gates would pick up the phone at his home at nights and on weekends and gamely match wits with the probing press. However wrongheaded his policies, he was always trying to explain himself.

When it came to toughness, Gates left the scowling clown Arpaio -- the deadly combination of stupid and mean -- in the dust. Bloodthirsty street gangs feared him, and his boys and girls in blue loved him.

Not enough has been made of the fact that an overwhelming number of Arpaio's own deputies hate his guts, that the Maricopa County Deputies/Detention Association -- the union representing Joe's own personnel -- endorsed his unsuccessful opponent, retired Mesa Police Department commander Dan Saban, in the September 7 Republican primary.

"Except for command staff, a majority of us working for Joe were sick when he was reelected," one decorated deputy told me. "We were hoping that somebody would come in who wouldn't continue to make us a laughingstock. We hoped that Saban would discontinue the top-down policy of cruelty to prisoners [as a crime-prevention technique]. It doesn't work."

"There's a difference between being mean motherfuckers and [being] 'tough on crime.' Most of our inmates aren't [hardened criminals], but we're supposed to walk all over them," a detention officer said. "And if any [deputy] speaks out, Joe will step on him. Anybody who doesn't understand that is run out."

Never was Arpaio's chicken-heartedness more apparent than when, earlier in the campaign season, New Times columnist John Dougherty tried to ask the sheriff a question as he was leaving a Republican Party event. As Dougherty approached, Joe scurried to his unmarked county cruiser and -- in an Inspector Clouseau moment -- turned on its blinking police lights as he frantically fumbled to get the keys in the ignition so he could flee.

It was an uncomfortable moment for the Coward of the County, who's almost always surrounded by a contingent of Threat Assessment Squad geeks from his office. If you saw primary election night coverage three weeks ago on Channel 5, it was members of that same threat detail who twisted Dougherty's arm behind his back and were shown forcing him to leave a public building after Arpaio sicced them on him.

It seems Dougherty, who's been highly critical of the sheriff's unscrupulous and inhumane policies in his columns, had the temerity to confront Arpaio again -- this time actually getting a question out of his mouth before the sheriff acted out.

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Rick Barrs
Contact: Rick Barrs