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Arizona's Sheriff Joe Needs President Trump

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, backed Donald Trump from the moment he decided to run for president. Arpaio says he likes the billionaire because he's been nice to Ava, his wife of 58 years. But there's more to it: Trump represents hope for Arpaio, whose tough police tactics have gotten him in hot water.

QuickTake Immigration Reform

The man who calls himself "America's Toughest Sheriff" is a hero to some and a villain to others for his relentless targeting of illegal immigrants and the spartan conditions in his jails. Now, the controversy has come to a head: He is running for re-election while facing potential criminal charges for being slow to implement a 2013 court ruling that ordered him to stop racial profiling. His life's work is in danger of being negated thanks to the efforts of some dedicated activists and lawyers who oppose his tough methods. So it's no wonder that he has called electing Trump his "most important mission" after 55 years in law enforcement. Trump, who has made a crackdown on immigration a signature issue of his campaign and has endorsed "stop and frisk" policing and profiling as practiced in Israel, may seem like the answer to his problems.

Scourge of Immigrants 

Lydia Guzman, who works for Chicanos por la Causa, a community development organization in Phoenix, remembers when the Hispanic community of the fourth-most-populous county in the U.S. liked Arpaio and saw him as a tough but fair cop. That changed after 2005, when deputies arrested Patrick Haab, an Army reservist and vigilante, who held seven undocumented immigrants at gunpoint at a rest stop. Arpaio stood by his men, saying that "being illegal is not a serious crime." That was a political misstep. The anti-immigrant county attorney (who would later be disbarred) refused to prosecute Haab, and there was a public backlash against Arpaio. 

"He figured out what he needed to do to get re-elected," Guzman says. To bolster his credentials with conservative voters, Arpaio began to conduct what he called saturation patrols in Hispanic neighborhoods. "He would unleash 200 officers on an area of three to five square miles," Guzman recalls. The police would stop people indiscriminately and haul away those without documents.

Arpaio also set up a hotline for locals to call in tips on the whereabouts of undocumented immigrants. He'd swoop in on restaurants and other businesses that reportedly employed those without paperwork, bringing TV cameras with him. "So some of us Latino activists gathered in a restaurant to discuss how we could stop this crazy fool," Guzman said. They decided to set up a hotline of their own. Guzman ran it, receiving text messages from areas where Arpaio's raids were taking place and letting others know. Soon, the deputies were met by protesters, as well as Arpaio supporters and TV cameras. Local police departments often had to step in to separate the sides. 

It was a war. Dan Pochoda, the former senior counsel for the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, recalls being arrested for trespass after attending a protest in a furniture store parking lot where Mexican workers waited to be hired as day laborers and Arpaio's deputies had come to round them up. A judge found him not guilty. "I jumped up, I was so relieved," says Pochoda, a native New Yorker with a wry sense of humor. "It could happen to anyone. It did happen to anyone."

Arpaio, the son of Italian immigrants, told me he got tough on undocumented immigrants after finding out they accounted for 18 percent of the county's prison population. "Most of them come here to work," he says. "Americans violate the law, too. But if they weren't here, that's 18 percent of the crime you wouldn't have."

Outlaw Sheriff

In 2007, ACLU filed a class-action suit in federal court on behalf of Hispanic plaintiffs and organizations that accused Arpaio of racially profiling Hispanic drivers who were stopped in Maricopa County. Pochoda says the first judge on the case, Melendres v. Arpaio, was a Hispanic woman, and Arpaio demanded she be removed. Arpaio objected to her on the grounds "that she couldn't be impartial because she was Latino," Pochoda says. "That was the best thing that happened to us in this trial."

The first judge recused herself, and the case went to Grant Murray Snow, a lifelong Republican. He ordered the Sheriff's Office to put an end to racial profiling and appointed monitors to ensure that it complied with his orders to reform, such as requiring officers to wear body cameras to record their interactions with the public. The county also was required to pay the plaintiffs' legal costs. Pochoda says the Arizona ACLU received its portion, $450,000, last week. The total cost of the case to Maricopa County is much higher, though -- according to Pochoda's estimate, about $45 million to date, including Arpaio's own legal fees. 

Arpaio's detractors say these costs have forced the sheriff to cut back on law enforcement programs. The Phoenix New Times, a local alternative weekly that has been fiercely critical of Arpaio, recently reported that he scrapped a pay raise for detention officers to come up with the money, and there have been unfavorable leaks from the Sheriff's Office, including one that concerned an anonymous no-confidence letter to Arpaio from "employees who do the right thing."  

Arpaio says he has been returning money from his $250 million budget to taxpayers almost every year, including $13 million in 2015. According to him, the amount of money he has saved from the budgets over the years is much greater than the Melendres-related costs. 

After Snow ruled in the Melendres case, it came to light that the Sheriff's Office had been concealing reams of evidence from the judge. Some of that evidence surfaced in 2014 in the home of Deputy Charley Armendariz after his apparent suicide: hundreds of IDs taken from drivers with Hispanic names and hours of recordings of traffic stops. Earlier this year, Snow held Arpaio in civil contempt, and the case was referred to a prosecutor for a criminal contempt investigation. Arpaio is famously tough on inmates: He has built a tent city for them to roast in the Arizona heat while they're fed on less than a dollar a day, denied television and forced to wear humiliating pink underwear so they aren't tempted to steal government-issue boxers. Now, there is a chance he might share their fate.

Re-election Struggle

This is the background for Arpaio's re-election campaign. His rival is a former cop, Paul Penzone, who narrowly lost to Arpaio in 2012 but who was ahead of him when polls were last published in August.

Arpaio dismisses those polls. He is a formidable political fighter running on an undeniably strong record of bringing down crime in Maricopa County. Index crimes (including murder, rape, robbery and assault) in the county, the biggest in the state, dropped more than 31 percent between 2006 and 2015, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The second biggest county, Pima, which includes Tucson, had a far more liberal sheriff, an open Arpaio opponent, for most of that period -- and it recorded a decline in index crimes of just 7.8 percent. That isn't all due to Arpaio's efforts, says Danielle Wallace of the Arizona State University's School of Criminology and Criminal Justice: Maricopa County includes some progressive police departments that have given a lot of attention to community policing and innovations such as body cameras. Nonetheless, it's a powerful statistic for Arpaio to run on.

"I like to think my jails have been a deterrent," he says. "Maybe they hate the 130 degrees in those tents, maybe they don't like the vegetarian diet and the cheapest food."

Arpaio has raised about $12 million for his campaign, mostly from out of state; Penzone has only a little more than $300,000.

"I'm not going to surrender to people who are trying to run me out of office," Arpaio says, explaining why he's running again at age 84.

"This is a serial racist -- just as there are serial rapists and serial shooters -- who should be drummed out of the country," Pochoda says of the sheriff. "But his base doesn't think he has been disgraced. It believes the lawsuits are political."

That's what Arpaio tells voters and what he told me. He blames the Justice Department for starting racial profiling investigations against him. Under President Barack Obama, the department stripped him of the right to enforce federal immigration law and investigated him for abuse of power (no charges were brought, though), but the real damage to him and the most powerful pressure to change his policing methods came from civil society groups and the courts. That pressure is not going to cease, and it's having tangible results.

Racial Profiling

The saturation raids have ended, and there's less chance that a brown-skinned person will be stopped on the street on the mere suspicion that he or she is an undocumented immigrant. "We have won, and a lot of what used to happen is no longer happening," Guzman says. "People still come up to me and say, 'But the sheriff is still on TV pounding his chest!' So I have to tell them 'we didn't fight to remove the sheriff but to change the Sheriff's Department's attitude.'"

There are signs that attitude is changing. "There is more transparency, a better relationship with the community," Pochoda says. "They are more careful, and there are people at the Sheriff's Office who are saying, 'We shouldn't be doing this."

Even the sheriff himself says the Melendres case has done his force of 3,400 some good. "We needed the extra equipment," he says. "We probably would have bought the body cameras anyway." He doesn't exactly defend racial profiling, either, claiming he and his men had been "trained" to "use race" when enforcing federal immigration laws.

Wallace, the criminologist at Arizona State, was approached by the Sheriff's Office last year to help monitor the instances of racial profiling by its officers. She now has a contract to produce annual reports analyzing traffic-stop data -- the material that constituted most of the evidence in the Melendres case. The officers report the data -- the length of stops, their reasons and consequences, the drivers' race -- using special software. The first of Wallace's analyses, for 2015, showed there was still a certain bias against non-white drivers.

Wallace, who is no fan of Arpaio, works with the Sheriff Department's Bureau of Internal Oversight, and she says she sees a genuine desire to eradicate racial profiling. "Sheriff Joe has allowed this to happen, and they've been slow to make the effort to ameliorate it," she says, "but, being on the inside, I see how difficult it is to set up a system of alerts to discipline and retrain the deputies. In some police departments that have done this, like Detroit and Oakland, it has taken 10 years and more."

If Trump is elected president, though, the positive changes could slow because Arpaio might feel vindicated. He says the county's prison population has gone down lately, emptying out his infamous tents -- but that's only temporary. "The tents have gone down but I know they're going to go back up, especially if Donald becomes president: you know there's going to be more emphasis on arresting people." Trump "is not going to use the Justice Department to put cops in jail all the time or have the government monitoring and running police departments."

That's what Arpaio's adversaries are worried about. Guzman even fears that President Trump might offer Arpaio some national office. "Imagine if he were chief of immigration," she says. "It's a scary thought." (Arpaio says he wants to serve another four years as sheriff and then think about running again, though "it would be hard to refuse" a call from Trump to come to Washington).

Guzman says she believes Arpaio's office is still less than 50 percent compliant with Judge Snow's orders. A different political climate and a president who agrees with Arpaio's old policing methods might make it easier for local law enforcement officials such as Arpaio to stick to them. Pochoda points out that lawsuits take years.

The system is slow and imperfect, but it's not without strong checks and balances. Arizona, until recently was staunchly Republican, now looks more like a purple state, in part thanks to the increasing political activity of Hispanics, who make up 31 percent of the state's population. Trump and Hillary Clinton are head-to-head in state polls. Although Senator John McCain is likely to fend off a strong challenge from his a Democrat, Ann Kirkpatrick, and though Arpaio isn't giving up without a fight, their victories or Trump's aren't likely to turn back the clock on change. And the courts are hardly going to lose interest in upholding civil rights if Trump gets elected. 

Saturation raids and racial profiling as a policy are only possible if they go unchallenged. That's unlikely to be the case again, at least in Arizona.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net