Joe Arpaio has always been part Bull Connor, part Barney Fife.
When the sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County is not impersonating the commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., who symbolized bigotry during the civil rights movement, he sort of resembles the bumbling sheriff's deputy who patrolled Mayberry, N.C.
Arpaio has been that way for the 13 years that I've written about him. Back then, Arizona depended on illegal immigrants; it did not despise them. But ever since the state declared open season last year on illegal immigrants and those who might be suspected of being one (read: Latinos), Arpaio has been attracting attention.
In recent years, Arpaio has demonstrated an almost pathological desire to pick on Mexicans and Mexican- Americans. Like most bullies, Arpaio only picks on people who can't fight back. He is empowered by Maricopa County voters who obviously feel anxious over changing demographics and need to feel superior to someone. Those who come from south of the border — or whose ancestors did — fill this role.
After a three-year investigation, the Justice Department recently issued a scathing report that accused Arpaio's office of having a "pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos," engaging in "unconstitutional policing" that includes raids based on racially tinged citizen complaints, and retaliating against critics.
Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow dealt Arpaio another blow in a case involving a civil rights lawsuit from 2007, in which sheriff's deputies were accused of racially profiling Latinos in immigration sweeps masquerading as traffic stops. In addition to issuing legal sanctions against Arpaio for destroying documents, Snow also barred the sheriff and his deputies from detaining people simply for being in the country illegally. The judge certified the lawsuit as a class action that would cover all Latinos who have been "stopped, detained, questioned or searched" by Arpaio's officers.
Arpaio was bending the rules even before the Arizona Legislature passed a tough immigration law last year that requires local and state cops to enforce federal law. He used state anti-smuggling laws to round up illegal immigrants and then accused them of conspiring with the smugglers. And he took full advantage of the federal 287(g) program that allows local law enforcement agencies to enter into agreements with Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowing them to play border patrol agents.
But it was when the immigration law passed that Arpaio went into overdrive. The sheriff's office conducted vehicle checkpoints and raided businesses acting on tips from concerned citizens outraged that there were people — gasp — speaking Spanish on the premises.
Opponents of the law predicted this sort of thing would happen, and, for their trouble, they were accused of assuming that all law enforcement officers were racist.
No, not racist. Just human. Given the task of finding illegal immigrants but lacking the training to do so, local law enforcement will instinctively focus on Latinos — since most illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico and the rest of Latin America.
To many people, this is common sense. Yet, many of these same people also insist — with a straight face — that local law enforcement officers are not giving Latinos extra scrutiny. They made that ridiculous claim because the truth was too ugly to confront.
Now, they have no choice. It's gone too far. Too many people know.
THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP