In a year that has been marked by one major political story or scandal after another, the pardoning of an Arizona sheriff has many up in arms. President Trump, who started ruffling feathers shortly after taking office with big promises of a wall along the Mexico border and with his infamous “Muslim ban,” made jaws drop once more by issuing a presidential pardon–his first–for former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio, who lost his seventh reelection bid last November, was convicted of criminal contempt on July 31, 2017. Only a few weeks before he faced sentencing, however, his old friend Trump got him a get out of jail free card.
The main reason that people are outraged about this pardon is because Joe Arpaio has long been a controversial figure, and the vast majority of people believed that he was justifiably convicted of criminal contempt for his actions and those of the sheriff’s office under his direction. Another aspect of the pardon that’s ruffling feathers is how quickly it was issued. Typically, presidents wait a long time before availing themselves of this power. Although it’s not required, they usually consult with the Justice Department prior to proceeding. Typical of his style, Trump charged full steam ahead and issued the pardon without doing any consulting of any kind.
Why did the current U.S. president, a former reality TV show host and real estate mogul, go out on a limb for Sheriff Arpaio? Trump hails from New York City, of course, and he has spent most of his life in the worlds of business and entertainment. Meanwhile, Arpaio served as sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, for 24 years. The connection lies in their shared hatred of Barack Obama, as Arpaio was a vocal supporter of Trump during the so-called “birther movement,” in which opponents claimed that Obama had forged his birth certificate and had actually been born elsewhere.
The presidential pardoning of Arpaio was controversial enough. The statement that was then issued by the White House really pushed things over the edge. The White House didn’t just announce the pardon; it also went on to glowingly praise Sheriff Arpaio for protecting citizens against the “scourges of crime and illegal immigration.” The president, not surprisingly, also took to his personal Twitter to pile praise onto the sheriff. Arpaio himself appears to be savvy with social media, as he issued a tweet thanking Trump for the pardon, describing what happened to him as a “political witch hunt.”
Why did Arpaio need to be pardoned in the first place? The sheriff was convicted of criminal contempt on July 31, 2017. This charge came about due to a court order that was issued back in December 2011. At that time, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow issued an injunction ordering Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to stop targeting Hispanic and Latino drivers. However, Arpaio and his team went on to keep doing exactly that for another 18 months or longer.
Arpaio and his office claimed that the 2011 court order was poorly worded and confusing. They admitted to violating the order but claimed that they did so unintentionally. However, in May 2013, Snow ruled that they had indeed engaged in racial profiling. All of this caused a lot of bad press for Arpaio, who came increasingly under fire for his heavy-handed techniques and blatant violation of people’s civil rights. When he went up for reelection for the seventh time in November 2017, he finally lost. For the first time in more than two decades, Maricopa County wouldn’t have Sheriff Arpaio.
Just two weeks after losing his reelection bid, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt. He was scheduled to be sentenced on October 5. Now that Trump has pardoned him, of course, that won’t be happening anymore. He may have gotten off the hook this time, but Arpaio is no stranger to the courtroom. He and his office were sued by the cofounders of the Phoenix New Times after they were falsely arrested in retaliation for an expose that they published about the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Those men, Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, were ultimately awarded a $3.7 million settlement. Wisely, they decided to use the proceeds from the settlement to establish the Frontera Fund.
Sheriff Arpaio has had a contentious relationship with the Phoenix New Times for many years. The paper published his home address in a story in 2004. Ever since then, the sheriff had been looking for ways to retaliate. The prosecutor’s office refused to press charges over the incident, so Arpaio had a special prosecutor establish a grand jury to issue subpoenas for anyone who had anything to do with stories related to Arpaio. The paper didn’t grant this request; instead, it published an expose about the situation.
That very night, Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin were arrested separately at their Phoenix area homes by armed deputies from Arpaio’s feared Selective Enforcement Unit. They arrived in SUVs with Mexican license plates and tinted windows, and they whisked the men away to separate jails that were both at the time managed by Arpaio. Less than 24 hours later, the two were released. Public outcry over the incident was fierce, and a judge ruled that Larkin and Lacey had been illegally detained and arrested without probable cause. This is what ultimately led to the $3.7 million settlement that was used to establish the Frontera Fund.
These days, Larkin and Lacey focus much of their efforts on the Frontera Fund and its activities. The organization raises funds for non-profits that help to protect the civil rights of Hispanics, Latinos and immigrants. While there is little doubt that Larkin, Lacey and others are disappointed by the pardoning of Joe Arpaio, they surely realize that real progress can only be made through organizations like theirs. Punishing Arpaio might be satisfying, but working to protect people’s civil rights now and in the future is a much better way to fight back and to prevent someone like him from achieving so much power ever again.