Arpaio Watch: Keeping Tabs on Civil Liberties in Maricopa County, Arizona

PHOTO: Arpaio

Matt York/AP Photo

Today we're launching Arpaio Watch, a new series aimed at monitoring civil liberties in Arizona immigrant communities by tracking the policies and practices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In the past two decades, no law enforcement figure in America has generated more animosity and fear within immigrant communities than the 80-year-old sheriff, who is infamous for immigration sweeps in heavily Latino neighborhoods in the Phoenix area.

And in recent months, the man once glowingly referred to by the mainstream media as "America's Toughest Sheriff" has come under fire from the feds: A lawsuit filed in May by the Justice Department accuses Arpaio of using racial profiling in his police work, discriminating against limited English speakers in jails and abusing his power as sheriff. In addition, a district court judge will rule in the next few weeks on a similar lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, echoing a designation awarded to him by Rolling Stone, which recently dubbed him "America's meanest and most corrupt politician."

If you're not familiar with Arpaio, here's a crash course. This list is by no means complete:

--Systematic profiling of Latinos: A Justice Department report found that Latinos in the Phoenix area are four to nine times more likely than non-Latinos to be pulled over for traffic violations. The report also presented evidence that the sheriff chose locations for raids based on complaints about Spanish speakers and people with "dark skin," and not based on complaints about crime.

Despite the evidence presented against him in court, the sheriff says it does not add up to profiling.

--Degrading prisoners, including immigrant detainees: One of Arpaio's most trumpeted accomplishments is his Tent City jail, a sprawling outdoor complex that houses more than 2,000 prisoners , where temperatures can reach 165 degrees. All Maricopa County jail inmates are dressed in pink underwear and striped uniforms and have the option to earn back lost privileges by being placed into chain gangs that work on the side of the road. Arpaio believes the gangs will help discourage crime.

--Disregard for women's rights: According to the progressive blog ThinkProgress, complaints in the Justice Department lawsuit "included accusations that Arpaio and his staff forced women to sleep in their own menstrual blood, assaulted pregnant women, ignored rape, and criminalized being a Latino."

--Bias against Mexican immigrants: When writing in his 2008 book about his parents, who came to the U.S. from Italy, Arpaio said that he views Mexican immigrants differently from other groups. Lawrence Downes of the New York Times reports on a section of the book:

"'My parents, like all other immigrants exclusive of those from Mexico, held to certain hopes and truths.' It goes on to state that Mexicans refuse to assimilate and are immigration lawbreakers to an 'astonishing' degree."

In court, Arpaio blamed the passage on a ghostwriter.

--Clamping down on critics: During Arpaio's tenure, no media outlet has been a more outspoken opponent of his policies than Phoenix New Times. So when Arpaio's office ordered the arrests of the paper's owners in 2007 for publishing his home address, it appeared to be in retaliation to their negative coverage. The arrests are cited in the Justice Department complaint and the newspaper owners themselves are also suing the sheriff's office.

--He's a birther: While it doesn't rank up there with the other issues on this list, it's worthwhile to note that Arpaio is a committed birther, even while most conservatives have tried to distance themselves from the movement. In a July publicity event received limply by the media, Sheriff Arpaio's posse said that Obama's birth certificate was "probably" fraudulent.

About the project: The goal of Arpaio Watch is to monitor the effects of Arpaio's policies on Arizona immigrant communities, and to report from the ground up about how immigration raids, disproportionate police stops and a disconnect between residents and law enforement can impact a community.

Stay tuned as Arpaio Watch follows the Arizona sheriff over the weeks and months to come.

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Immigration Reform is a heated political issue that we view from all angles in the hope of getting politicians to address those impacted by the decisions they make.

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