Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks to the media about the Department… (Laura Segall / Reuters )
Joe Arpaio likes to call himself America's toughest sheriff. But the Department of Justice reached a different conclusion last week about the lawman from Arizona's Maricopa County: He helped nurture a "culture of bias" in his department, it reported after a three-year investigation, that led to discriminatory behavior and "unconstitutional policing" that routinely violated the rights of Latinos.
The findings are hardly news to Latinos in that state, who were up to nine times more likely to be pulled over by deputies while driving than non-Latinos. The federal probe, first launched under President George W. Bush, concluded that Arpaio and his deputies illegally arrested and jailed Latinos and initiated immigration sweeps in response to complaints that simply referred to people with "dark skin" but made no mention of an actual crime. The report also said that in its zeal to prosecute immigrants, the sheriff's office may have failed to properly investigate 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation.
It's a damning report, and the behavior it describes is a shameful throwback to a less enlightened era. And yet Arpaio's overzealous enforcement of immigration law is exactly what has attracted the attention of Republican presidential candidates, several of whom sought his endorsement earlier this year.
In September, GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann rushed to meet with Arpaio in Iowa. A month later, then-front-runner Herman Cain traveled to Arizona to see the sheriff. Arpaio ultimately threw his endorsement to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who rushed to the lawman's defense on Friday, suggesting that Arpaio was a victim of an Obama administration witch hunt.
But Arpaio is hardly the victim of a conspiracy. The Justice Department's scathing report makes that clear. An expert hired by the department said this case involves "the most egregious racial profiling in the United States" that he has ever seen in the course of his work, according to the report. On Arpaio's watch, deputies went unchecked. One officer used his patrol car to intentionally hit and drag a Latino man and then instructed other deputies to "leave him there," investigators said. A Latino motorist was incarcerated for 13 days for failing to use his turn signal.
We understand that Americans are frustrated by an immigration system that fails everyone. But Arpaio's supporters should think hard about what his true legacy will be. He can't be America's sheriff if he can't play by the rules.