Joe Assumes Deposition

Faced with a series of trials, an Arizona official turns up the public relations machine to full tilt, launching a string of populist initiatives meant to soften his image.

Governor J. Fife Symington III? No, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In recent weeks, Arpaio has announced such innovations as a mini-tents program for children, counseling classes for inmates, and the latest, a school for juveniles serving adult time which will be run by Arpaio's chief political operative, Tom Bearup.

Arpaio was rewarded for this spate of good works with a recent Arizona Republic editorial that lauded the sheriff and reassured readers that Arpaio was not turning soft. "Arpaio knows after sleeping in the tents and talking to the inmates just what improvements are necessary," the Republic opined.

In bestowing such wisdom and magnanimity upon Arpaio, however, the Republic failed to note another incentive encouraging the sheriff to temper his severe reputation: upcoming lawsuits.

New Times earlier reported that as a result of conditions in the jails--where a federal government investigation found that inmates are physically abused and denied medical care--Maricopa County now faces tens of millions of dollars in lawsuits filed by present and former inmates.

Some of those suits, such as the $20 million case filed by the family of Scott Norberg, may not come to trial for considerable time.

Another lawsuit is more imminent. On April 21, Sheriff Arpaio was deposed for five hours in the case of Eric Johnson v. Maricopa County. A transcript of that deposition reveals that one of the central issues in the case will be the tone of Arpaio's public pronouncements about the conditions in his jails, and whether those pronouncements encouraged jailers to throw inmate Eric Johnson against a wall, then break his arm on November 2, 1994.

Johnson's attorneys argue that Arpaio's proclamations that his jail is meant as a place for punishment, and that its inhabitants are all criminals--even though most simply await trial--have produced an environment where his jailers feel free to abuse inmates. (Since the lawsuits against his office have mounted, Arpaio has become more careful in describing his jails. Now, when he says the jails are tough, he adds the words but humane.)

Eric Johnson, like 70 percent of Arpaio's prisoners, was a pretrial detainee. He had been picked up by Phoenix police on a warrant for a suspended driver's license. While being transported within Madison Street Jail, however, Johnson had missed a meal and was hungry and irritated. He banged on his cell door repeatedly. When a detention officer passed his cell, Johnson asked: "Can I get a sandwich?" and added, "Yeah, I'm talking to you, asshole."

Three detention officers--Benny Cluff, Rod Douglas and Sergeant Paul Rogers--responded by pulling Johnson from the cell, slamming him headfirst into a wall, stun-gunning him and turning his arm up behind his back. All of it was captured on videotape.

Johnson's attorneys say they will produce a medical expert who will testify that Johnson's arm was broken from the twisting action when Cluff turned it up behind Johnson. The Sheriff's Office maintains that it broke when Johnson hit the wall.

But besides establishing what happened to Johnson, his attorneys--Joel Robbins, Patti Shelton, Kevin Van Norman and Nick Hentoff--will try to show that his treatment was part of a pattern of abuse, condoned by Arpaio, which could make the county, as well as the officers, liable for Johnson's injuries.

To that end, the attorneys have assembled dozens of quotations by Arpaio taken from newspaper and magazine articles to show that his employees would have had ample opportunity to get the message, quotes such as one which appeared in Time in 1995: "I want to make this place so unpleasant that they won't even think about doing something that could bring them back. I want them to suffer."

Another quote that the attorneys say will be key to the case: Arpaio's response to a CBS reporter who had asked about Johnson's treatment. "Are you familiar with that case at all?" the CBS reporter is heard to ask. "No, I'm not," Arpaio responds, adding: "But so what? I'm sure that my officers had a reason to slam him against the cell block."

Given that attitude, Robbins points out, it's not surprising that the sheriff's internal affairs department cleared the three detention officers of wrongdoing.

During the April 21 sworn deposition, Robbins questioned Arpaio on many different subjects, from Arpaio's history to his evolving goals as sheriff, his relationship with the press, and his personal understanding of inmate mistreatment. The transcript offers an intriguing preview of the kind of trial testimony which may follow in dozens of other cases. (No trial date has been set for the Johnson case. In the meantime, his attorneys plan to depose other Arpaio employees.)

During the long interrogation--the transcript runs to 162 pages--Arpaio complains that in media coverage of him, he's taken out of context. Arpaio further makes a good point that he can't control what reporters put into their articles, and that his more extreme comments are more likely to get into print.

But Robbins counters that if Arpaio were so concerned that he was being taken out of context, he could use his in-house newsletter to present a more accurate version of his philosophies. Robbins then points out that in Roundup, the Sheriff's Office newsletter, Arpaio's statements about jail being a tough place and meant for punishment--comments written by Arpaio himself--are almost identical to what showed up in news reports.

Arpaio testified that he has no way of knowing if any of his employees ever see his numerous television and print appearances, and he denies that they have been required to watch or read such material.

But a Sheriff's Office document obtained by Johnson's lawyers proves just the opposite: A routing slip written by Tom Bearup instructs all jail employees to watch the CBS report which included Arpaio's statement that his men probably had a reason for slamming Johnson against a wall.

During much of the deposition, Robbins tried, mostly in vain, to get Arpaio to answer basic questions about what he considered excessive force and other violations of department policy regarding inmate treatment, as well as Arpaio's knowledge of the Johnson case.

In contrast to the fiery sheriff who is quick to tell reporters that he's in complete control, Arpaio repeatedly claimed that he relies almost entirely on others to make determinations about what constituted violations in his jails.

Robbins acknowledges that going after the larger issue of Arpaio's culpability in the case is a tough proposition. But he says that makes the case worth trying.

"We want to be able to change the way the county treats these people," Robbins says. "And we want Arpaio to start thinking in ways other than sound bites for the media.