Commentary: Sheriff Joe Arpaio may have failed at fighting crime

Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez
Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez MCT

In the end, it may be children that finally rid Arizona of the bullying tactics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The adults there certainly haven’t been able to do it.

Many regard the longtime sheriff of Maricopa County as a disgrace to the badge he wears. Others, particularly conservatives, can’t get enough of his antics. Everyone from Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has sung his praises. They like his brashness. He makes inmates wear pink underwear, prisoners live in tent cities and Latinos tremble.

Arpaio has long been accused of being more about flamboyance than good policing. Evidence is mounting.

A U.S. Department of Justice report alleges that Arpaio’s department has committed a laundry list of civil rights violations, and that it has failed to properly investigate more than 400 cases of child sex abuse. The fear is that children were molested because he failed to act.

Maybe Arpaio just didn’t have the time. Not with all those television appearances and the fundraising he does on behalf of GOP candidates.

Now other law enforcement officials in Arizona are criticizing Arpaio as well. One is the former assistant police chief of El Mirage, the Phoenix suburb from which many of the allegations stem. The town’s police department disbanded in 2005 for a two-year period, and its cases were temporarily transferred to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. When the department reorganized, it found Arpaio hadn’t followed up on the child molestation cases. Former Assistant Police Chief Bill Louis called the mishandling “apparent gross negligence.” That many of the alleged victims are children of immigrants should surprise no one.

All Arpaio has been able to muster is a meek reply. “If there were any victims, I apologize to those victims,” he has told media. Then he tried to claim that Democrats were out to get him. It’s a political hit.

Enough evidence exists that Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl felt moved to comment. “Victims of abuse not only deserve the respect of law enforcement, but their rights must also be protected throughout the criminal process,” a statement released on behalf of both senators said.

After its three-year investigation, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division found in December that Arpaio’s staff “engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.” The report specified the deputies, supervisory and command staff “engages in racial profiling of Latinos, and unlawfully stops, detains and arrests Latinos.” The sheriff’s office also “unlawfully retaliates against individuals who complain about or criticize” such practices.

Arpaio’s probably already lined his bird cage with that letter, or sent it to the shredder. The Justice Department had to pressure him just to get him to cooperate with the investigation.

The allegations are old news in the Phoenix area. Arpaio has long butted heads with other elected officials who have questioned his tactics, his use of taxpayer funds and the priority he has given to violations by Hispanics while not investigating other types of crimes.

I have long believed that it won’t be illegal immigration, or the treatment of Hispanics in general, that takes down Arpaio. Unfortunately, his brutal posturing on immigration has curried too much favor with the general public.

The Department of Homeland Security has also stripped Arpaio of his authority to enforce immigration measures. While his aggressive treatment of Latinos has gotten him in trouble with the feds, it is generally praised by his supporters. They think the recent moves against Arpaio are pandering to Latinos.

The safety of children, thankfully, is another matter.

The public doesn’t seem ready to tolerate a law enforcement agency that turns a blind eye to child molestation, especially in the aftermath of the charges at Penn State and the Catholic Church’s mishandling of such matters.

It seems that the fabled tough-guy lawman holds some of the laws he’s sworn to uphold in low regard. Is Arpaio guilty of malfeasance? Time and further inquiry will tell.

He is undoubtedly malevolent. And more Arizonans are waking up to that fact. Justice may finally come to Maricopa County after all, if only because Arpaio leaves office.

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