Joe Arpaio has been here before. At another time, during another Democratic administration, the tough talking Arizona sheriff was hit with a federal civil rights lawsuit designed to end the abusive practices of his agency.
It was 1997 when the sheriff, then 65, took to a press conference in Phoenix to react to news that the U.S. Justice Department was suing him for what it alleged was a longstanding mistreatment of inmates in his jails.
According to news reports from the time, he promised he would not back down. Everything was going to stay the same. “Nothing changes,” he said.
Flash forward 15 years and Arpaio’s words have turned out to be spot on. He is older now, pushing 80, but the Republican lawman is again facing off with Justice Department lawyers who allege he and his men have violated the civil rights of Arizonans.
This time, the government’s accusations are a little different. They deal largely with the way Arpaio and his office treat Latinos. The suit claims the massive law enforcement agency, which polices a metropolitan area of 3.8 million people, 30 percent of whom are Latino, has a pattern of racial profiling and bias. But the suit goes even further, accusing the sheriff and his deputies of failing to properly investigate hundreds of sex crimes while simultaneously pursuing bogus investigations against his political enemies.
While the latest accusations are more sweeping than those of the past, a look back at the 1997 case shows the sheriff had success standing his ground against the federal government.
Documents from that era, which were provided to TPM this week, also reveal that Arpaio has been using many of the same tactics these days that he used back then. Arpaio’s office has even hired the same private Phoenix law firm of Jones, Skelton & Hochuli that represented it him the last investigation.
The similarities make some of his longtime critics skeptical that the Justice Department will have much of a lasting effect with its latest case.
“I’m pretty confident the one thing you can guarantee is that nothing will change,” said Phoenix attorney Joel Robbins, who provided the archive documents to TPM and who has won numerous lawsuits against Arpaio over the years on behalf of people who were mistreated in the jails. “He doesn’t tend to learn things. His policies seem to be dictated by whatever gets him press coverage and positive feedback from the public. It has nothing to do with what a federal court says or whether a jury tells him to change.”
The last time Arpaio went to war with the federal government, he was facing off against a rising star in Democratic politics named Janet Napolitano.
At the time, she was serving as the U.S. attorney for Arizona, having been chosen for the post by President Bill Clinton. Today, after having been elected as the state’s attorney general and then later as governor, she serves as the U.S. secretary of homeland security under President Obama.
The Justice Department first began its investigation of Arpaio’s jails in 1995 after receiving complaints that inmates were being injured and killed in altercations with detention officers.
A DOJ inquiry completed that year found a “pattern of excessive force” by the sheriff’s staff. It said officers were using dangerous tactics to deal with inmates, including hog tying them and using stun guns on them when they were already detained with handcuffs or strapped into restraining chairs. The investigation found the jails were overcrowded and understaffed. It said internal investigations into use of force by officers were often lacking in details and conclusions.
“Overall, the excessive use of force by staff must be addressed immediately,” investigator Eugene Miller wrote in the report, dated Jan. 10, 1996. “In this regard, there are some systemic issues…which allow instances of excessive force to slip between some administrative cracks and thus, go either undetected or unconfronted.”
Arpaio’s office quickly complained. In an undated response, sheriff’s officials said it was impossible for them to respond to the allegations because the investigator didn’t provide them with all the evidence he collected.
“These are significant allegations but no specifics have been provided,” the sheriff’s office wrote in its response. “Thus, it is impossible to provide a factual response, recommend disciplinary action or take individualized corrective action.”
Arpaio has used the very same complaints in the current case against him.
After the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division revealed its three-and-a-half year investigation into the sheriff’s treatment of Latinos last December, the sheriff complained he wouldn’t be able to respond until the feds handed over all their evidence. That included, he said, the identifies of his agency’s alleged victims.
The tactic worked in the 1990s. It convinced the Justice Department to hire a different and independent investigator to go back and look at Arpaio’s jails. The new investigator, George Sullivan, was agreed on by both the sheriff’s office and the DOJ.
Sullivan’s investigation took about two months and piggybacked off of the work that had already been done by the Justice Department. His report, dated May 14, 1997, was longer and more detailed than Miller’s. It included details about specific use of force complaints.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com