Trials and Error

America’s Worst Sheriff Is Gone

Will Joe Arpaio’s successor, Paul Penzone, do enough to reverse Maricopa County, Arizona’s horrific policies on immigration?

Paul Penzone

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office

In the 24 years that Joe Arpaio led the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, he gleefully degraded prisoners, promoted racist and hate-filled rhetoric, and ultimately became a caricature of the failed tough-on-crime approach to policing. Arpaio singled out immigrants for particularly aggressive treatment. With no real justification, he raided businesses to arrest undocumented people and presided over blatant racial profiling of Latinos. He also violated court orders telling him to stop, leading to a criminal contempt charge. His fanatical obsession with immigration cost Phoenix millions of dollars, as spending on immigration raids gobbled up the department’s resources. Huge overtime spending on immigration enforcement led to a budget crisis, and legal fees for lawsuits about his policies cost taxpayers $142 million.

Arpaio’s reign as the most infamous sheriff in America finally ended in November, when Democrat Paul Penzone defeated him by 200,000 votes. Penzone, 49, served in the Phoenix Police Department for 21 years, moving up from the ranks of officer to detective to sergeant and later working at a nonprofit fighting child abuse. While Arpaio was bombastic and provocative, Penzone is strait-laced, even-tempered, and cautious. Between the two sheriffs, “It’s like night and day,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former majority leader in the state senate and longtime Arpaio critic.

Penzone has promised to change the office’s single-minded focus on immigration enforcement to instead promote responsive and effective policing. At the height of Arpaio’s immigration detention machine, patrol cars were late to the most serious 911 calls two-thirds of the time, and some of the most serious crimes went unsolved. “We know there were hundreds of cases of crimes against children that weren’t investigated because the resources weren’t there—they were allocated to immigration,” Penzone told me, saying the misguided policies inspired him to run for election. “It has undermined safety for this community.”

The new sheriff also attacked Arpaio’s immigrant raids as “targeting people for the color of their skin.” And he has labeled as “not only reckless but unsafe” Arpaio’s decision to “send a high volume of armed deputies to secure a business” to locate “a small group of individuals who may have committed immigration violations.”

Joel Robbins, a Phoenix attorney who filed a series of civil rights lawsuits against Arpaio, says he’s encouraged by what he’s seen from Penzone so far. “With Arpaio, it was almost as if he was selling a brand: ‘I’m the toughest sheriff in America,’ ” Robbins said. “I think Penzone is more of a professional. He cares more about doing his job than his reputation.”

There are still significant questions, though, about far the new sheriff is willing to go in breaking Arpaio’s detention machine.

Penzone announced on Feb. 17 that he would refuse detainer requests from Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Maricopa County jail, ending a policy of keeping undocumented immigrants locked up without probable cause beyond their court-ordered release dates and delivering them to federal agents. “We are no longer the office willing to defy the Constitution at the expense of our taxpayer dollars, our resources, or public safety,” Penzone told reporters. This was a significant change in policy: A 2013 study found that federal immigration authorities detained more people from the Maricopa jail than any such institution in the country.

But just one week after his forceful pronouncements, Penzone changed course. On Friday, he said officers would hand undocumented immigrants directly to ICE agents while they’re still inside the jail, although he maintained that he won’t hold them past their release dates. Penzone told a local TV station his decision came after “the public flooded his office with angry comments” about ending cooperation with ICE.

In an email, Penzone’s spokesperson argued that the latest policy change was less a flip-flop than a “new procedure” and noted that “it is completely ICE’s responsibility to take custody of their immigrant detainees. … We release when the court orders.”

That statement obscures Penzone’s own agency: From one week to the next, he went from refusing to transfer undocumented inmates to ICE agents within the facility to allowing such transfers.

Outside of the immigration context, Penzone appears to be headed in the right direction in reversing the worst excesses of Arpaio’s reign. Arpaio made a name for himself by embracing right-wing conspiracy theories, going so far as creating a “cold case posse”—a group of volunteer deputies—to investigate Barack Obama’s birth certificate, among other nontraditional inquiries. Penzone shut down the Obama birth certificate investigation in January.

Arpaio also created a “tent city” in his Phoenix-area jail, housing inmates in an outdoor complex of Korean War–era military tents during 120-degree Arizona summers. Inmates at the jail are clothed in pink underwear—“Why give them a color they like?” Arpaio said in a 2014 interview—and sent to clean up public areas in literal chain gangs. He seemed to take pleasure in making life as intolerable as possible for the people in his jail, once bragging that “it costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates.”

In his first weeks in office, Penzone established a civilian advisory panel to recommend changes at the jail. He added a Spanish-language form that allows prisoners to more easily voice complaints. He’s also hinted at changes to the prisoner dress code. “Wearing pink underwear does nothing to change behavior,” he told me.

If Penzone is to succeed where Arpaio failed, it will take more than changing the color of the prisoners’ underwear and halting staff trips to Hawaii to investigate Obama’s birth certificate. The Maricopa County jail has a long history of providing inadequate, inhumane, and life-threatening care for mentally ill people awaiting trial. Seriously mentally ill inmates, including those held incompetent to stand trial, have been held in solitary confinement, causing their conditions to worsen significantly. People have died unnecessarily while in custody, costing the county millions of dollars in lawsuits. A federal court stepped in to monitor the situation back in 2008; however, a 2016 court filing suggests the jail is still not in compliance with the court order, posing a continued risk of harm to some of the most vulnerable people in the sheriff’s care.

This inhumane treatment extends to female inmates. Penzone is now overseeing an office that has previously compelled multiple women in custody, including women arrested for immigration-related offenses, to give birth to children while shackled, a practice that the American Medical Association has called “medically hazardous” and “barbaric.” One of these women reported that she was not even allowed to hold her baby until she was released from custody 70 days after the child’s birth.

Penzone will also be judged on how he handles the most basic duties of the sheriff’s office. Arpaio’s abysmal response times to 911 calls and low clearance rates received harsh criticism even from conservative groups such as the Goldwater Institute. Penzone could prioritize solving the county’s most serious cases and ensure that his deputies respond to emergency calls with a timeliness that builds community confidence.

One big difference between the new sheriff and his headline-grabbing predecessor is that Penzone is, well, kind of boring. In January, Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini lamented, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that Penzone must “hate the media” because he doesn’t give journalists anything interesting to write about. “We’ve grown accustomed to weird, sensational and bad news from the sheriff’s office,” Montini wrote. “Joe Arpaio made the lives of many regular people very difficult, but he made the lives of hacks like me unbelievably easy.” Penzone chuckled when I brought up that argument. “I think it’s the greatest compliment that anyone could have paid me,” he said, “that I’m more focused on the job than on making news.”

One of Arpaio’s biggest antagonists is a bit more circumspect, saying he’ll wait to see if Penzone does in fact make the lives of regular people less difficult. “It’s going to be a very, very disappointed community if he doesn’t live up to our hopes,” Gutierrez, the former majority leader, said. “The same sort of outrage that finally deposed Arpaio would be back with a vengeance.”