Backing Donald Trump: meet Joe Arpaio, the ‘toughest sheriff’ in the United States

The Maricopa County sheriff says that the Republican is his ‘kind of guy: outspoken’ – and that people have overreacted to the police shootings of black men caught on film

Joe Arpaio wonders whether bestiality is a problem in Ireland, given all the cattle in the country. He later autographs a photograph that has just been taken of him posing with an animal-rights worker and some officers from his animal-crimes investigation unit.

"Is this for print? Because I don't want to ramble," says the 84-year-old sheriff of Maricopa County, in Arizona, the fourth-most-populous county in the United States, in his office in Phoenix. His county, which he has served for 24 years, has a population that is larger than that of 21 American states. His is the country's third-largest sheriff's office. Around him are framed newspaper clippings, citations and awards from all over the world to "America's toughest sheriff". "I have had maybe 4,000 profiles – you are maybe 4,001," he says about the interest in him.

Arpaio, who is in his sixth term, courts controversy and publicity equally. The son of Italian immigrants gained national and international notoriety for his hard-line immigration policies and past aggressive raids on illegal immigrants in Arizona.

The media interest in Arpaio has grown this year since he was drawn into the Republican and Democratic races for the White House. He has endorsed Donald Trump, who at his campaign rallies regularly brags about the sheriff's support as a feather in his cap for his extreme stance on immigration. "I just had the feeling that here's a businessman, an outsider," Arpaio says about why he is supporting Trump. "He's my type of guy: outspoken."


Arpaio, whose county is at one point just 50km from Mexico, likes Trump's plan to build a wall along the border to keep migrants and criminals out. "A wall is important. I support him on that. Anything you can do to reduce illegal immigration and drugs we should try to do."

Trump is not the first politician to court the Maricopa County sheriff: George W Bush and Mitt Romney sought, and received, his support. Arpaio has taken his endorsement of Trump to a new level, appearing at campaign events with him. They are the hard men of the Republican right, beloved of tough-on-crime conservatives.

Since Arpaio set up Tent City, a makeshift outdoor jail made from Korean War tents, in 1993, 520,000 inmates have passed through it, enduring temperatures of 54 degrees in the summer. Arpaio forces inmates to wear pink underwear. The official reason: inmates used to steal the white underwear. The unofficial reason: the inmates don’t like pink.

When an inmate sued the county over the hygiene of the food, Arpaio took away their meat. A “vacancy” light hangs from one of the watchtowers to remind inmates that there is always a place there should they reoffend. Many still do.

A federal judge found in 2013 that Arpaio had violated the constitutional rights of Hispanic-Americans by disproportionately targeting them with traffic stops. And he has since been found to have violated a court order intended to curtail his racial profiling. A judge has set a hearing for next Thursday to discuss whether federal prosecutors should pursue criminal contempt charges against the sheriff. One problem: Arpaio is supposed to serve as a delegate for Trump at the Republican national convention in Cleveland that day.

He traces his problems of "alleged racial profiling" back to the Department of Justice action against him that started 100 days after President Barack Obama took office. Arpaio denies that he or his deputies engage in racial profiling. "I am an equal opportunity guy: I lock everybody up. I don't care what background they are."

Since taking up office Arpaio has cost Maricopa County taxpayers about $140 million (€130 million) in legal expenses, settlements and court awards to do with his heavy-handed police methods and drawn charges of racism from his critics. “I am not a racist, but, you know what, let them call it. When they can’t get you on something they always bring the race card up. They are doing that with Trump every day because he said a couple of words. Always bring the race card. That’s how they do it.”

This week, a fortnight after our meeting, we speak again by telephone following the fatal shootings of two black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the subsequent killing of five police officers by a black gunman looking to exact revenge over those killings.

Arpaio puts the blame on the White House. Obama “set the tempo of how he felt about race relations” in 2009, he says, when he said that a police officer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, “acted stupidly” in arresting a prominent black Harvard professor after a confrontation at the man’s home. The president noted at the time that there was “a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately” .

Arpaio challenges the decision to have the Department of Justice's civil-rights division investigate the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a black man, by police in Baton Rouge last night but not Micah Johnson's racially motivated attack on white officers in Dallas. "Why don't they say that it is a race problem too? He" – Obama – "calls all these other incidents racial," Arpaio says, noting Johnson's racially motivated admissions to police before they killed him with a bomb-carrying robot.

Arpaio believes there is a “war on cops” and refuses to rush to judgment based on the harrowing mobile-phone videos of the fatal police shootings that have caused a national outrage over the past 10 days and triggered Black Lives Matters demonstrations across the country. “Every life matters. It doesn’t matter if you are black or not,” he says, repeating a line used by Trump this week that has angered Black Lives Matter activists for misinterpreting their argument: black lives are undervalued in the US.

Arpaio says Americans are over-reacting to the videos. “I want to know why there is such a rush of bringing Obama’s Department of Justice because of what they saw in a video,” he said. “Everybody looks at a video camera and right away they over-react as far as I am concerned. They ought to be doing an investigation.”

He wishes Obama would pay more attention to police who risk their lives. “The president sets the tempo, as I said. Maybe he should be more supportive of cops instead of going after people every time they shoot a black person,” says Arpaio. “I don’t see him going after people shooting a white cop.”