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Arizona Sheriff Faces Civil Rights Probe, Allegations of Undermining Law Enforcement with Controversial Focus on Immigration

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona’s Maricopa County has forced prisoners to march through the streets of Phoenix dressed in just pink underwear, housed prisoners in tents in the searing heat, and appears on a Fox reality-TV show. Now he could be facing a federal investigation for civil rights abuses and a trial on charges of racially profiling Latinos. He’s also been accused of focusing on immigration enforcement at the expense of other law enforcement duties. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The man who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff” could be facing a federal investigation for possible civil rights abuses and a trial on charges of racially profiling Latinos. The chairpersons of four House committees called on Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano last Friday to investigate allegations of misconduct against Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County in Arizona.

Earlier this month, in a move the New York Times called a “degrading spectacle,” Sheriff Arpaio forced 200 shackled prisoners to march through the streets of Phoenix from a local jail to his infamous tent city that’s surrounded by an electric fence. Many accused the sheriff of pulling a publicity stunt to promote his new reality television show on Fox, Smile, You’re Under Arrest!

At a news conference after the march, this is how Arpaio responded to questions about why he was humiliating prisoners.

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: Well, if you remember, if you’ve been around, about two years ago we marched about a thousand people in just their pink underwear from one jail to the other. So why should I keep this secret, because it will never be kept secret, if I open this tent city? In about two minutes, the whole world will know about it anyway. So I have nothing to hide. I have an open-door policy. I’m facing you right now. I’m telling you our policy. I have nothing to hide. I don’t sneak people in. The media constantly comes through these tents, from all over the world. We’ve had presidential candidates, four of them, running for president, that visited the tents.

AMY GOODMAN: That clip courtesy of A.J. Alexander.

In their strongly worded letter, Congress members John Conyers, Zoe Lofgren, Jerrold Nadler and Bobby Scott accuse the sheriff of “blatant disregard for the rights of Hispanic residents.” They say Latinos in Phoenix, citizens and non-citizens alike, “feel under siege” because of the sheriff’s raids.

In an interview with the East Valley Tribune newspaper last April, Sheriff Arpaio defended himself against mounting criticism of his actions.

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: We do know there’s many illegals in this county that have already been designated criminals. Just by coming here, they are criminals. Everybody forgets that. Illegal means that you’ve done something wrong, you’re illegal. But that goes by the wayside. See, nobody talks about that. They call me Nazi, and they have KKK. They have my picture next to Hitler, all these demonstrators. That’s alright. I can take it. But, you know, that is a little racist, too, against me. But they want to do it, let them do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The sheriff’s tactics of public humiliation have come under greater fire since Maricopa County entered into what is known as a Section 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security. The agreement allows local law enforcement agencies to perform immigration enforcement functions. Last year, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon criticized Sheriff Arpaio for focusing on immigration enforcement at the expense of 40,000 outstanding felony arrest warrants. The letter from Congressman Conyers and others urges Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano to review and possibly terminate Maricopa County’s 287(g) agreements.

I’m joined right now by two guests in Phoenix, Arizona. Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter with the East Valley Tribune. He’s just won the 2008 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting, along with Paul Giblin, for their five-part series on Sheriff Arpaio called “Reasonable Doubt.” Salvador Reza is with us, as well, a member of the Puente movement in Phoenix that grew out of the spate of arrests and deportations under Sheriff Arpaio in 2007. He’s part of a large group of organizations calling for the national demonstration in Phoenix next Saturday against 287(g) agreements.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

President Obama is there, as well, today. He is going to be signing legislation there. And he will be accompanied by the Homeland Security director, Janet Napolitano, who is the former governor of Arizona, who has worked very closely with the sheriff.

Ryan Gabrielson, first of all, congratulations on your George Polk Award for this series. Can you talk about the latest controversy that involves the sheriff?

RYAN GABRIELSON: Well, the latest controversy is simply sort of stemming from the two years worth of controversy since the sheriff’s office began doing its real crackdown on illegal immigration. And the new investigations that are being called for seem to be sort of a fresh approach to what the FBI apparently — there’s a lot of evidence —- was doing last year in response to the Phoenix mayor’s request for a federal investigation. Lots of people that we’ve talked to have said that federal agents, FBI agents, have been doing interviews for quite some time, potentially building a case concerning civil rights infractions. This simply would be a new approach from different agencies, from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and from the Attorney General’s office itself.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m wondering if you can talk about the latest news, Salvador Reza, the latest controversy, and how your organizations came together.

SALVADOR REZA: Yes. In 2007, Sheriff Arpaio said for ICE-trained sheriffs to basically patrol an area under control of a Roger Sensing, which is a private individual. So this private individual was utilizing them to actually scour the neighborhoods. He would call in the license plates of people that were picked up for day labor. And basically the sheriffs would go and stop them and then start interrogating everybody. He deported over a hundred people like that. So, out of that, we started a series of demonstrations against Pruitt. But now, since then, he has done a series of sweeps every so often, like every two months or so, where he goes into the Latino neighborhoods and basically intimidates, terrorizes and basically destroys business in the area while he’s there.

Well, the latest stunt, media stunt, by Sheriff Arpaio was parading 240 or so prisoners from one facility to the other, which is now the tent city. It’s not that far, but he called all the media to make a spectacle of the situation, and basically segregating by alienation, by national origin, and by color, a whole set of inmates, which is actually a violation of the Constitution. But on top of that, he said it was to facilitate visit by the lawyers and by the Mexican consulate or the consulate of other country. But what happened, in essence, he actually took away days. Now they only can visit them three days.

So, you know, he’s constantly lying and basically putting himself on the public eye and basically dividing the whole community into pro— and anti-Arpaio forces. And he’s utilizing the 287(g) agreements so that he can basically go after gardeners, after corn vendors, after, you know, maids, and basically intimidating. Now he’s interrogating the whole board of supervisors, county board of supervisors, and accusing them of violating employer sanctions. So he’s out of control. And I think investigation is due. Not only investigation, they should freeze the 287(g) agreements with Sheriff Arpaio until, you know, this gets resolved. Janet Napolitano doesn’t seem to want to do that so far. I hope she changes her mind.

RYAN GABRIELSON: It’s true, the 287(g) agreement —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Gabrielson -—


AMY GOODMAN: — the reporter with the East Valley Tribune.

RYAN GABRIELSON: — just distinctly changed the nature of the sheriff’s operations. Throughout 2006, when they first began this, they were scouring the rural roadways where human smugglers would use to get in and out of Maricopa County. Once they got the federal pact, they all of a sudden had 160 federal agents, or their deputies that were cross-designated with all the powers of Immigration agents. They started launching large-scale crackdowns in Hispanic neighborhoods with zero evidence of actual criminal activity, sending out the SWAT team, the K9 teams, you know, hundreds of members of their volunteer posse, to just target day laborers. So — and that’s something that’s continued ever since they got the federal agreement.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about this issue of whether Janet Napolitano, the Arizona governor, can deal with Sheriff Arpaio in the way that the Congress members and community groups are demanding, given her history?

I’m looking at a piece, in addition to your pieces, Ryan Gabrielson, by Tom Zoellner, who formerly wrote for the Arizona Republic. And he — the piece is called “Janet Napolitano’s Embarrassing History with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.” And among the things he says, “The public devours it, [and] Arpaio has consistently enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any elected official in Arizona [(Maricopa County includes Phoenix)]. That inmates have a way of getting killed in Sheriff Joe’s jails, costing Maricopa County millions of dollars in lawsuits, has not dimmed his star. Nor has a federal judge’s order that he provide a constitutionally mandated minimum level of food and health care, an order that said Arpaio had inflicted ‘needless suffering and deterioration’ on the mentally ill.”

He goes on to say, “More than a decade ago, Napolitano was in a position to help curb Arpaio’s excesses. As a U.S. attorney in 1995, she was put in charge of [a] Justice Department investigation into atrocious conditions in Arpaio’s ‘tent city.’ Napolitano carried out her task with what can best be described as reluctance, going out of her way to protect Arpaio from flak almost before the probe had started.” She told the Associated Press, “We’re doing this with the complete cooperation of the sheriff.” She said, “We run a strict jail but a safe jail, and I haven’t heard from anyone who thinks that this is a bad thing.”

He writes, “‘Anyone’? Maybe Napolitano needed to get out of her office a little more.

“The Justice Department’s final report, issued about two years later, confirmed a list of disgraces, including excessive use of force, gratuitous use of pepper spray and ‘restraint chairs’ (since blamed for at least three inmate deaths), and hog-tying and beating of inmates. It also said Arpaio’s staffing was ‘below levels needed for safety and humane operations.’”

Ryan Gabrielson, this is a good chance to go into the history of the sheriff, something that you’ve done comprehensively in this five-part series. We’re going to break and come back. We’re speaking with Ryan Gabrielson, a reporter with the East Valley Tribune who has won the 2008 George Polk Award, just announced yesterday, and Salvador Reza, who is a member of the Puente movement in Phoenix, Arizona, where President Obama is today. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Our guests are Salvador Reza, member of the Puente movement in Phoenix, Arizona; Ryan Gabrielson, the George Polk Award-winning reporter of the East Valley Tribune, who has done a five-part series on the controversial Sheriff Arpaio. Now Congress members are calling for a federal investigation into his tactics. Among the things he has done, parading prisoners through the streets of Phoenix in their prison stripes, making them wear only pink underwear. He’s been charged with not giving them enough food.

But, Ryan Gabrielson, why don’t you go through the history, what you found?

RYAN GABRIELSON: Well, it’s been a long sixteen years. Joe Arpaio served four terms now, and he’s just elected to a fifth, so he’s going to be around for a while long. He jokes that they’ll have to carry him out in a box.

He’s a master showman. And so, it’s always — you know, from the pink underwear that you mentioned to tent city, putting a big no vacancy sign that’s always lit up over tent city that’s letting them — while a lot of jails are overflowing and people and criminals are being let go early, he will always make more room, regardless of what constraints he might theoretically have. And that’s always played very well with the public, regardless of what else is actually going on within the sheriff’s office. His popularity has been, you know, traditionally in the 70s and 80 percentiles. It’s much lower these days. He’s in the solid 50 to 60 percent, but, you know, which would be bad only by Arpaio standards.

Our investigation wanted to really take a look behind the front that everybody covers constantly, you know, what’s what — we’re all being called out to bring out cameras to watch inmates being paraded around. We wanted to find out how is he going about conducting his immigration operations, who is he arresting, what are they being charged with, what was the probable cause, and what impact is it having on everything else that they’re supposed to be doing. They’re the police department for all of unincorporated Maricopa County and all these small towns, 300,000 people in all, in which they are, you know, the first and last line of defense on all kinds of violent crimes. So we wanted to find out, are they actually responding to those needs, as they ramp up and evolve into an immigration agency, which started in 2006?

And what we found was the problems in the jails have been well documented over the years, but no one had really focused on the main — one of the main core jobs of police work. And we found that starting in 2006, after the immigration enforcement began, response times just got dramatically slower on the most serious emergency calls. Arrest rates plummeted from ten percent, which is fairly standard nationally, to around three percent. And in some cases, violent crimes, particularly sexual assaults, we found dozens of them had not been investigated at all and had, in fact, been ignored in the areas where the heaviest immigration enforcement work was being done.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the issue, for example, of deaths and lack of food.


AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Gabrielson, can you talk about that? Charged with not giving prisoners enough food.

RYAN GABRIELSON: Oh, in his jails. Well, I mean, there’s been multiple, multiple deaths, painstakingly reported by us, The Republic and in other papers, particularly Phoenix New Times, detailing just the level of abuse and negligence in supervising prisoners. There was just recently, last year, another beating death that was captured on camera. And the food situation is simply — is one that Arpaio has actually used as a point of his — part of his publicity machine, serving them green bologna, just the bare minimum, which in a state like Arizona, traditionally, has played very well with the idea tough on crime. Joe Arpaio creates visual ways to show that he’s being tough on crime, like green bologna, pink underwear and no vacancy signs.

AMY GOODMAN: And the pink underwear, where were they forced to wear this?

RYAN GABRIELSON: That’s in jail. The storyline that he told is that prisoners were stealing the regular white underwear. And so, in order to curb that, he made it all pink, so it would be less desirable. And it created a sensation, and he started selling his pink underwear, and all that sort has become part of his trademark.

AMY GOODMAN: And raiding the offices of the Phoenix New Times, Ryan Gabrielson?

RYAN GABRIELSON: Well, actually, there was a — they didn’t even actually go to their offices. They went to the homes of the two publishers for Phoenix New Times, which — there was an investigation being conducted into a case where New Times published Joe Arpaio’s home address in its paper and online. And Arizona has a kind of interesting law where you’re not allowed to publish online the address of law enforcement. And so, the sheriff had been pushing our county attorney to do an investigation and prosecute the case.

Over the course of that, it sort of snowballed to the point where they — New Times received these hugely broad subpoenas for basically every bit of information about readers, reporter notes, etc., just breathtaking subpoenas, grand jury subpoenas. And they were supposed to remain sort of — you know, they weren’t supposed to publish anything about it, and they felt that they had a need, that people needed to know what was going on with this investigation, so they published all the details about these subpoenas. And then, that night, after the newspaper came out, sheriff’s deputies in plain clothes showed up at the homes of these two publishers and arrested them.

SALVADOR REZA: With cars with Mexican license plates.


AMY GOODMAN: Salvador Reza, repeat that.

SALVADOR REZA: With cars that had Mexican license plates, sheriff cars with Mexican license plates.

RYAN GABRIELSON: The sheriff’s offices has a division called the Selective Enforcement Unit that handles those types of things, not regular police work, but more internal control of that sort.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Gabrielson, you’ve been writing in your part five of your Tribune piece that won the George Polk, “Why No One Is Willing to Hold Arpaio Accountable.” And I’d like you to talk, for example, about Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, the highest elected official to publicly go against Arpaio’s sweeps, what happened to him, what he said, and then right on up to, well, the governor, who has now become the Homeland Security chief, Janet Napolitano, who’s back in Arizona today with President Obama in Phoenix.

RYAN GABRIELSON: Traditionally, Joe Arpaio has been one of the most popular and, therefore, most powerful politicians in the state of Arizona. And to go up against Joe was — brought significant risks. When the mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon, spoke out against him last year, it didn’t go without a response. Not only was, of course, Arpaio blasting Gordon in various media outlets, he launched an investigation of — Gordon had detailed a complaint, a racial profiling allegation, against sheriff’s deputies from somebody in his staff. And so, the sheriff’s office launched an internal affairs investigation of some sort to determine if there was any veracity to that complaint and, in the process, requested —- I think it was tens of thousands of pages of internal correspondence, email, the mayor’s email, for, I think, the past year or so, theoretically to ascertain the source of this complaint and all the details about it. But it was looked at as a fishing expedition to try to find dirt on the mayor.

AMY GOODMAN: Salvador Reza, Janet Napolitano, who is a close adviser now, of course, to President Obama as the head of Homeland Security?

SALVADOR REZA: Sheriff Arpaio is actually the biggest black eye for Janet Napolitano. Janet Napolitano is basically a prosecutor. She is pro-law enforcement, and which is fine. But the problem with it is that now they have criminal [inaudible] -—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Salvador Reza and Ryan Gabrielson. We seem to have lost the satellite connection at this moment. Ryan Gabrielson just won the George Polk Award for his five-part series on Sheriff Arpaio. Salvador Reza, a longtime activist in Phoenix, he’s a member of the Puente movement. Continue, Salvador.

SALVADOR REZA: Yes. Well, Janet Napolitano is actually — Sheriff Arpaio is the biggest black eye for Janet Napolitano. Janet Napolitano is a prosecutor. But the problem with it is that they have criminalized our work now. To be here to seek work or to be here in the United States undocumented is actually just a civil penalty. Yet, you know, they keep on stressing the criminality of it.

The 287(g) agreements were brought in by Janet Napolitano, and she was the one that actually went and interceded for Sheriff Arpaio and vouched for him to get the 287(g) agreements. Now she wants to expand the 287(g) agreement nationally, but if they do that, then the same thing that happened to Arizona is going to happen nationally, because you’re going to have access to doing immigration work for a lot of like little county sheriffs that don’t necessarily understand the complexity of modern migrations.

And on top of that, what is happening, Arizona has basically become like a ghost town, because no business comes here anymore, because they’re afraid that Sheriff Arpaio might come and raid them. A lot of companies have left Arizona to Mexico, to Canada, or to other states, basically because nobody is willing to risk it, nobody’s willing to come and invest in Arizona. And if this goes nationally, this is going to affect not only Arizona, but nationally it’s going to affect the entire United States. And under the climate that we’re — economic climate we’re in right now, we don’t need that right now. I hope Obama actually looks at what happened to Arizona before they unleash the plans that Janet Napolitano has for the entire country.

RYAN GABRIELSON: And 287(g) actually is already, to a certain —-

AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Gabrielson.

RYAN GABRIELSON: —- to a certain extent, nationwide. Florida and Alabama were two of the first places where these type of pacts were set up. But no one does it quite like Joe Arpaio. He’s got the largest contingent of these officers in the country. It’s 160. Nobody else has anywhere near that many. And what’s sort of happening right now is there’s dozens of other state and local police departments that are waiting, have applied, to get 287(g) agreements to do this type of work on their own.

And it is complicated work. It is difficult. And it requires — you know, they get five weeks of training, but sometimes that training doesn’t necessarily either sink in, or it doesn’t actually work its way into the field. One of the things we found in our series with the sheriff is in their agreement with — their contract with the federal government, there is very clear rules to protect against violating civil rights and to protect against any type of racial profiling. And one of them is that if you’re going to go into a heavily, you know, minority community, you have to — or any community, period, any type of large-scale operation, you have to have empirical evidence, data, calls for service, some evidence that there’s a crime problem there. And that has just blatantly been ignored by the sheriff’s office, and they fully acknowledge that they’ve ignored that.

SALVADOR REZA: One of the things that we haven’t been mentioning is that Sheriff Arpaio has been utilized by United for a Sovereign America and other groups that are nativist groups that actually go and — go, for example, to four or five businesses in an area, and then those four or five businesses ask Joe to come in, while seventy or eighty of the other businesses in the area don’t even want him, because they know what’s going to happen to them.

So with that as a pretext, he comes in to — so-called, to defend the business community. And by going in there, he doesn’t go in just, you know, with officer; he brings his whole SWAT team, like he said before, his headquarters, mobile operations. Sometimes he brings helicopters. Sometimes he brings horses. And it’s basically an intimidation type of tactics and all under the pretext of protecting business.

When we talk to the business community, they say, “We don’t even want him around here,” because they lose 60 to 70 percent of their sales whenever Sheriff Joe is in the area. So it’s very negative to the community. And like you say, Napolitano is very aware of this. And at the same time, we believe that if they really do want to protect homeland security, they have to concentrate on the dangerous people, not on the gardeners and all of that. The other part can be done through immigration reform, which we hope that they actually do that.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times recently had an editorial talking about Napolitano reviewing the enforcement efforts, including looking at ways to expand 287(g). “Sheriff Arpaio,” the New York Times says, “is a powerful argument for doing just the opposite. Now that she has left Arizona politics behind, Ms. Napolitano is free to prove this is not Arpaio’s America, where the mob rules and immigrants are subject to ritual humiliation. The country should expect no less.”

Ryan Gabrielson, do you think Napolitano will be able to rise to the task and challenge and change her own relationship with Arpaio?

RYAN GABRIELSON: Well, to a great extent, the relationship had already changed before she left. Last year, there was, it was mentioned, the unserved warrants. A lot of Arpaio’s operations, immigration operations, or at least a share of them, were funded through state grants. I think it was last March or so, or last May, she actually took $600,000 that had been set aside for him to do more of that enforcement and redirected it to create a new task force on — to serve these warrants. That was seen as not really something about the warrants, that it was about a rebuff to the sheriff and sort of a breaking of whatever ties were there. He’s, since then, been blasting her constantly. I don’t think there’s a lot of love lost between the two anymore. The question is whether she’s willing to undertake a politically challenging investigation that could result in the sheriff’s office losing its —-


RYAN GABRIELSON: —- partnership, its 287(g) agreement, and the backlash — whether there will be backlash over that and whether she has to worry about that anymore now that she’s in D.C. instead of Arizona.

SALVADOR REZA: And I think the New York Times is —-

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Salvador Reza -— go ahead.

SALVADOR REZA: And I think the New York Times is right on target, you know, because if you’re here — and we’ve been filming a lot of those sweeps, in which, you know, we’ve seen little kids, four, six years old, being separated from their moms, where there’s no need to separate them, you know. The mom just did like, you know, a minor traffic ticket, and because of that, you know, they’re separated. The kids are US citizens. And on top of that, the way that those little kids were treated, they were basically terrorized by masked sheriffs, which told me that I couldn’t film, even though there’s no law against filming.

And the thing — it has become almost like a third world country here in Arizona. Maybe Sheriff Arpaio picked a lot of that while he was over there in Mexico under the DA. But the thing is, he is actually creating Maricopa County like if it was almost like Honduras or some other country where civil rights and human rights are basically being destroyed. And actually, the separation of the community is very stark and very marked, and to the point that his only friends are now his — his only friend left — and even his friend criticized him — was a prosecutor, Andrew Thomas, now his best friends, which are the board of supervisors, he has him under investigation, too. This is getting out of hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, joining us from Phoenix, where President Obama and the Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will be today to sign legislation around bank foreclosures of homes. Salvador Reza, member of the Puente movement in Phoenix, and Ryan Gabrielson, the George Polk Award-winning reporter with the East Valley Tribune, did a series on Sheriff Arpaio.

This is Democracy Now! And on this issue of home foreclosures, when we come back from break, we go to Minneapolis, where one poor people’s organization is saying “No more.” They’re going into houses that are not occupied, and they’re occupying them. Stay with us.

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