I’m no fan of Sheriff Joe — Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America.”
I first heard of him n 1997, when I was researching alternatives to incarceration for the Idaho state legislature. He was making headlines then for housing jail inmates in tent cities, outside the traditional jailhouse walls.
Twelve years later, he’s still doing that. In army surplus tents originally manufactured for the Korean War. These days, he’s also added pink underwear, pink handcuffs, and cutbacks on calories (from 300 to 250 per day) for prisoners to his tough guy toolbelt.
Martin Bashir’s Nightline segment on December 14 was not primarily prompted by these practices, which by now are somewhat old hat, at least in the Phoenix area. Nightline’s interest seemed to have been piqued by Sheriff Joe’s recent skirmish with the U.S. Justice Department over the tactics his office uses against illegal aliens. Bashir went out on a raid with the sheriff, and the glimpses of the faces of 18 would-be immigrants from Mexico being busted by sheriff’s deputies when their van was pulled over for speeding were poignant.
The stylized colloquy that followed between Bashir and Appaio was all too predictable. Appaio disclaimed any use of racial profiling; it was simply a matter, he said, of enforcing the law. After all, entering the U.S. illegally IS a Class IV felony under Arizona law.
Bashir, an experienced practitioner of in-your-face interviewing, broadened his faux, camera-ready attack. What about deaths and injuries in your jail? What about that off-track crusade against prostitution that ended with a sheriff’s volunteer having a sexual encounter with a prostitute. Didn’t Joe know his “brutal regime” set the tone for all this?
I don’t think Bashir really expected Joe to cave. The sheriff merely corrected him, with the requisite brusqueness, pointing out that the proper term was correctional “officer,” not “guard.”
Instead of the fruitless and largely pointless staged-confrontation, why didn’t Bashir provide any background on what makes Sheriff Joe tick? Herein lies a story on the business model of television journalism that is beyond the scope of this post.