Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio shows his badge as he holds a ceremony… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)
Armando Nido spotted the flashing lights of a Maricopa County sheriff's patrol car. He stiffened in fear.
It was February 2009, and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies were the talk of the Phoenix area. Nido's relatives avoided parts of town when they swept through, wary of being stopped for something as minor as jaywalking and asked for immigration papers.
The deputy followed Nido, a U.S. citizen, to his home in Tempe. When Nido got out of his car, he said, the deputy ran him over.
Without naming Nido, the Justice Department detailed the incident in a scathing report last week accusing Arpaio's agency of bullying Latinos under the guise of immigration enforcement. Justice Department officials are expected to ask a federal judge to order changes in Arpaio's department, and the Homeland Security Department has stripped county jail officers of their authority to detain people on immigration charges.
Arpaio has derided the federal actions as part of a political witch hunt, and staged a media event this week when his detention officers turned in their Immigration and Customs Enforcement credentials. "We are proud of the work we have done to fight illegal immigration," he said at a recent news conference.
The Justice Department report omitted the names of victims of harassment by deputies. But by matching incidents in the report to lawsuits and other complaints, The Times was able to identify some victims.
Many people said Arpaio inspired paranoia, even among Phoenix's elite. Among those hassled and indicted were critics — a group that included judges, lawyers and Maricopa County supervisors.
One critic, Republican Supervisor Don Stapley, was arrested — twice. None of the charges, which involved Stapley's fundraising and financial disclosure forms, stuck. Democratic Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox was indicted on a host of similar white-collar charges. All were dismissed.
Wilcox claimed the sheriff also had deputies camp outside her downtown Mexican restaurant, El Portal, to convince patrons it was bugged — a factor that contributed to the restaurant's closure, she said in court papers.
"If you didn't agree with him, he would come after you," Wilcox, who is suing the sheriff, said in an interview. "I had fear in the pit of my stomach every day."
Members of a citizens group that opposed Arpaio were arrested at a county supervisors meeting in 2008 for applauding and shouting. They were charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing, but none was convicted, the Justice Department report said.
In 2010, deputies arrested activist Salvador Reza twice during protests against SB 1070, Arizona's tough immigration law. One time, Reza said he had been watching demonstrators from across the street.
"I thought, if they can do this to me, they can do this to anybody," said Reza, who said he was barred by deputies from speaking to an attorney both times he was jailed.
Since his election in 1992, Arpaio has made headlines for his in-your-face style of law enforcement. He housed inmates in tents, clothed them in pink underwear and served them discolored green and blue meat — safe, but unsuitable for sale elsewhere. Troublemakers were given only bread and water.
In recent years, Arpaio gained a national following when he started using deputies as immigration agents. Arizona has struggled with illegal immigration, becoming a favorite entry point for smugglers after federal authorities toughened border enforcement in California. About 6% of Arizona residents are undocumented, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Arpaio's "sweeps" and muscular talk — he brags that he's America's toughest sheriff — endeared him to many Phoenix-area voters. GOP presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney sought his endorsement before he backed Texas Gov. Rick Perry. In recent months, Arpaio has publicly mulled running for U.S. Senate.
"Since this report came out, Joe Arpaio fans are more fervent in their support of him," said the sheriff's political advisor, Chad Willems.
Through the Sheriff's Department, Arpaio declined to be interviewed. His attorney, Bill Jones, also declined to comment. At his news conference, Arpaio said, "President Obama and the band of his merry men might as well erect their own pink neon sign at the Arizona-Mexico border saying, 'Welcome all illegals to your United States, our home is your home.' "
Though Arpaio said his agency would cooperate with the Justice Department's demands "the best we can," he has also described the incidents in the report as isolated "bumps," and not evidence of systemic problems.
But the report and interviews show that Latino residents, including U.S. citizens, mistrusted Maricopa County deputies, whom some residents call Los Sherifes del Arpaio.