There are few politicians I fear and despise more than America’s self-proclaimed “toughest Sheriff.” From the day I learned about Sheriff Joe Apraio, I not only feared living in his county, but feared for those trapped in the incredibly corrupt justice system of Maricopa County.
I have since left Maricopa County, leaving one of the nation’s largest counties behind for adventures elsewhere, but chills continue to run up and down my spin whenever I hear Apraio’s name. Plagued with corruption, it’s a wonder how he continues to get re-elected.
It all comes down to one thing: money. And for what Apraio lacks in integrity, he makes up for in cold hard cash. But that doesn’t diminish any of the political scandals that have plagued the Sheriff’s office since he took over in 1993.
In 1995, for instance, he re-instituted “chain gangs” – and went on to provide a volunteer juvenile chain gang, where delinquents can earn credit towards their high school diploma by picking up trash and pulling weeds out of the ground. (How that applies to a high school math or English course is beyond me.)
Interestingly enough, I never had seen any of Apraio’s chain gang until the months leading up to the 2008 election. Notably, the first and only time I ever saw them was in Arizona’s 15th state legislature district. That election a retired teacher, a Democrat, narrowly lost to an incumbent Republican. It was a very heated election, and an important one for one of Apraio home boys, who won his re-election bid by just over a thousand votes. I am certain that the giant signs announcing the presence of Apraio’s chain gang had nothing to do with the election. But it does make one wonder, why I had not seen them in other, safer Republican districts.
One thing Apraio is known for is his Tent City. It is, exactly as it sounds: several tents set up within the parameter of one of his jails. Considering that Maricopa County includes the city of Phoenix, it should come as no surprise that his Tent City has come under heavy scrutiny due to the incredibly hot summers. In 1997, for instance, Amnesty International said it was not a “humane alternative to housing inmates.” In 2011, when it was well over 110 degrees in Phoenix, Apraio decided to take the temperature in tent city and found that inside it was over 145 degrees. Unbearable for most. But not according to Apraio who said that folks in Iraq who haven’t committed crimes are in just as hot as conditions and they have committed any crimes. I guess he forgets that most of the inmates in Tent City, and in his jails, have yet to be convicted (when they are, they usually are sent to a prison outside his jurisdiction), instead, they are awaiting trail.
We could discuss how he feeds the inmates moldy bread, and just feeds them twice a day, or how he makes them wear pink underwear. Again, these folks have yet to be convicted, and in this country, you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
But all that seems trivial when you look at what he is on trial for doing now: racial profiling.
According to some, Apraio, and his office, has allegedly been stopping Hispanics for no other reason besides the color of their skin. He was a huge proponent of the racially charged Senate Bill 1070, which has since been (mostly) overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Justice Department agreed that his office has been abusing their powers, and has taken the nation’s toughest sheriff to trial saying as much.
The problem with retiring Sheriff Apraio is simple: there is no one strong enough, well known enough, rich enough to take him on. Those who are, are genuinely afraid of him (and with good reason, he has been known to arrest his adversaries in the middle of the night – with charges that do not stick, like what he did to one New Times writer. Tactics that do not do anything but scare).
Regardless, it is time to retire him. It will take hard work, bipartisanship, and money. Not doing so will only continue to embarrass Maricopa County, Phoenix (and all of the cities in Maricopa County), and the state of Arizona. Not doing so will only continue to corrupt the justice system, and continue to abuse inmates, many of whom have yet to be convicted of anything besides being too poor to make bail.
(Note: I do not endorse the use of “pig” in terms of referring to law enforcement. I have family in the force, however, in this rare instance, I do believe in using it when referring to Sheriff Arpaio. He is the reason the word was created).