U.S. Senate hopeful Joe Arpaio, 85, who boasted of being “America’s Toughest Sheriff” while holding the office in Maricopa County, Arizona for 24 years, has had a few run-ins with the law himself, including a conviction for criminal contempt by a federal court in July 2017.
Although President Trump pardoned him before sentencing could take place, Arpaio faced up to six months in jail, which time he spent instead preparing for a Senate run, announced in January 2018 (Arpaio lost a bid for re-election to the sheriff’s post two years earlier).
The case came to court as a lawsuit (one of many such actions filed against Arpaio over two decades) accusing the sheriff of racial profiling, which is illegal under federal law. The conviction stemmed from Arpaio’s refusal to comply with the judge’s order to stop detaining suspected undocumented immigrants with no legal basis.
That episode was all too typical of Arpaio’s blustery, controversial career, throughout which he was dogged by accusations of harsh, inhumane policies and practices. After he announced his Senate candidacy, several of those accusations resurfaced in a tweet that morphed into a widely shared Internet meme:
We’ll examine the accuracy of those claims one-by-one:
CLAIM: Burned a dog alive and laughed when the dog’s owner cried
There is no evidence that Joe Arpaio ever personally burned a dog alive or laughed when the dog’s owner cried. However, it was reported in 2004 that a Maricopa County SWAT team serving a weapons burglary search warrant under Arpaio’s supervision did.
According to an article in the 5 August 2004 edition of the alternative weekly newspaper Phoenix New Times, a two-story home in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee caught fire after Arpaio’s SWAT team launched tear gas canisters into it during a raid (occupants of the house said the fire was caused by the canisters, though investigators determined the likely cause was a candle knocked over in the commotion). Two of the occupants, Andrea Barker and Eric Kush, told the New Times that an officer sprayed their 10-month-old pit bull puppy with a fire extinguisher as it attempted to escape outside, driving it back into a burning bedroom, where it died. “I was crying hysterically,” Andrea Barker was quoted as saying. “I was so upset. They [deputies] were laughing at me,” she said.
A 15 October 2004 article in the East Valley Tribune confirmed that a dog burned to death during the fire, which completely destroyed the home. The Tribune cited a sheriff’s office spokesperson who said the dog was “aggressive,” and that spraying it with fire retardant was meant to subdue the animal without harming it.
CLAIM: Made women give birth in shackles
Miriam Mendiola-Martinez, an undocumented immigrant arrested on felony identity theft and forgery charges in 2009, filed a lawsuit in 2011 alleging that Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies violated her rights by placing her in shackles for transport to a medical facility after she went into labor, and again when she was in the recovery room after giving birth via C-section.
She was not shackled during the birth itself, but a medical expert testified at trial that restraints on female inmates at any point during pregnancy or postpartum recovery pose a health hazard.
The case was settled on appeal in 2016, with Mendiola-Martinez accepting $200,000 in compensation from the county and Arpaio agreeing to prohibit deputies from restraining female inmates during labor or the first two weeks after delivery.
We found no other instances of Arpaio or the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office being accused of restraining women during labor, birth, or postpartum recovery.
CLAIM: Refused to investigate alleged child sex crimes
STATUS: Mostly true.
As the East Valley Tribune‘s Ryan Gabrielson reported in a Pulitzer Prize-winning article in 2008, Sheriff Arpaio’s personal obsession with immigration enforcement sapped county resources and led to a sharp decline in criminal investigations and arrests. Many of the cases that fell by the wayside involved sex crimes. “By Arpaio’s own admission, the number of uninvestigated sex crime cases eventually swelled to more than 400,” Gabrielson wrote in 2017. “Many of the victims were children.”
According to law enforcement officials cited in a 2011 Associated Press report, dozens of alleged child molestation cases in the county were inadequately investigated or “not worked at all”:
In El Mirage alone, where Arpaio’s office was providing contract police services, officials discovered at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as 2 years old — where the sheriff’s office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.
Many of the victims, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files, were children of illegal immigrants.
CLAIM: Operated what he called “a concentration camp”
One of Joe Arpaio’s proudest accomplishments was the creation of a 7-acre outdoor jail he called “Tent City.” Erected in 1993, the compound was meant to relieve inmate overcrowding but won international notoriety for the cruel conditions imposed on those imprisoned there.
Francisco Chairez, who spent a year in Tent City in 2014, recalled some of those conditions for the Washington Post:
The rules of the tent city were strict, arbitrary and brutally enforced. There are no newspapers allowed; Arpaio hated newspapers. The only food allowed for those of us in the work furlough program was the food in the vending machines, which was grossly overpriced.
During the sweltering summer, the temperature could reach 115 or 120 degrees. I was in the tents when we hit 120. It was impossible to stay cool in the oppressive heat. Everyone would strip down to their underwear. There was no cold water, only water from vending machines; and eventually, the machines would run out. People would faint; some had heatstroke. That summer, ambulances came about three times. One man died in his bed.
Arpaio saved worse abuse for others. Those who were in full detention had to wear pink socks, underwear and flip-flops. They ate peanut butter and bread, and the only other meal they received was baloney and bread. They also had the option of “slob,” which was an unknown, disgusting substance that looked like some kind of thick stew and tasted like cardboard. (The poor people in the work furlough program who couldn’t pay for vending-machine food had no choice but to eat it.)
Although Arpaio has since denied saying it, he was captured on video in 2008 responding to a question about using concentration camps to hold undocumented immigrants by boasting, “I already have a concentration camp. … It’s called Tent City.”
Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, closed the facility in 2017.