Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio shows his badge as he holds a ceremony… (Ross D. Franklin / Associated…)
It was no surprise to learn last week that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., will seek reelection. The 79-year-old sheriff has shrugged off lawsuits, investigations and allegations that he practices unconstitutional policing that routinely violates the rights of Latinos. Arpaio regards all of that as a political campaign led by those who seek to use him "as the whipping boy for a national and international problem." So why not run?
In one sense, Arpaio is right. Congress' failure to provide a comprehensive fix to the nation's irrational immigration system has fueled widespread frustration among Republicans and Democrats alike. Federal inaction has prompted a wave of Arizona-style state laws that prescribe new immigration duties for police. Yet few state or local agencies have been so reckless in their use of those expanded powers as Arpaio's. He may be the product of a broken federal system, but he's also proof of why local law enforcement should not step into the breach.
While Arpaio runs his own troubled border patrol, he's neglected the actual duties of his office: A U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that his deputies failed to properly investigate 432 cases of sexual assault and child molestation cases. His aggressiveness has bordered on vengeance: A grand jury is considering whether the Maricopa Sheriff's Department's anticorruption team illegally pursued cases against Arpaio's critics, including judges and other officials. And his fidelity to the law itself has been questioned: A federal judge issued legal sanctions against the sheriff last month for destroying evidence related to a class-action lawsuit.
Arpaio bears sole responsibility for his excesses and arrogance. But federal officials have helped create the conditions for Arpaio to exploit. Lax border enforcement stoked anger in Arizona, and recent efforts to patrol the area more closely came only after the fact. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has properly contested state efforts to take over immigration enforcement but has failed to advance a program of its own. And Congress has shown even less leadership. Over the last three years, federal lawmakers have revealed an appalling unwillingness to assert their authority over immigration, opting instead to just assign more money for enforcement efforts.
The people of Maricopa County will decide whether they still want their controversial sheriff. Representatives in Washington should make sure those people don't think they need him.