October 25, 2004
Part 1 of a 3-part series
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s main campaign promise is to keep doing what he’s done. Tent City, chain gangs and meager meals for inmates all stay, even as the agency steps into a new era with the opening of two more jails.
What won’t go away easily — whether it’s Republican Arpaio, independent W. Steven Martin or Democrat Robert Ayala who is elected Nov. 2 — are some of the issues that have plagued Arpaio in his 12 years in office and some that have arisen in his most recent term: Crowding and understaffing of the jails; low pay for deputies and detention officers; and a number of lawsuits that potentially could cost county taxpayers millions of dollars.
"I think I’ve done a great job under difficult circumstances, as evidenced that the people believe I did a great job. That’s why they keep re-electing me," Arpaio said.
Martin said Arpaio did do a great job his first four years in office but then turned his focus from law enforcement to selfpromotion.
"I think after the second election it took him about a year, year-and-a-half to develop the ‘I’m the king theory and whatever I do and whatever I say is right,’ " Martin said.
Ayala, who retired from the sheriff’s office after 30 years, said Arpaio’s clearance rates of crimes are too low and jail conditions too deplorable for Arpaio to have done a great job.
"We’re still short of deputies in the field," Ayala said.
RED AND BLACK INK
Arpaio began his latest term in 2001 under a budget crisis forcing him to, among other measures, cut inmate meals from three to two per day, close satellite booking centers, cut a deal with a major vendor to obtain a cash advance and change his way of doing business.
Still, he finished fiscal 2001 almost $3 million over budget.
"Since I’ve been the sheriff for 12 years we’ve never been over budget except that one time," Arpaio said, "But it’s been taken care of."
Auditors wrote in a 2001 report that the county’s Office of Management and Budget and the Board of Supervisors would "closely monitor" the sheriff’s spending.
Arpaio’s financial director, Loretta Barkell — who was hired in late 2000 and is credited with cleaning up the financial mess — started to describe the monitoring as "a lot of oversight."
Sitting at her side, Arpaio got testy and took issue with Barkell’s characterization of the monitoring, saying it was simply "better coordination with the county on our figures."
"They don’t supervise this sheriff. I’m elected, it is no oversight," Arpaio said. "What we did was we kept closer track of our expenditures along with the county finance (office)."
The sheriff ’s office still works closely with the county’s finance people and they communicate better than before, Barkell said.
"We always give them a heads-up so they will not be surprised when we come to them for contingency," Barkell said.
She said the sheriff cuts it close every year and returns about $100,000 to the county.
The 2001 budget deficit was caused mostly by fuel costs and excessive overtime used to cover a shortage of 616 detention officers, Arpaio said.
Since then, the county, using some of the $900 million from a 1998 voter-approved one-fifth cent sales tax, has funded the 616 positions needed to adequately staff the current facilities. An additional 713 detention officers will be needed for the new jails and that funding becomes available in January.
That is still not enough staff, Arpaio said.
Barkell said that since October 2003, 490 detention officers have either been fully hired, are in the training academy or in field training.
"Thank God for the sales tax," Arpaio said.
The daily jail population runs between 9,200 and 9,600, nearly double the capacity of 5,200.
Arpaio has managed the crowding by doubling up inmates in single cells, using double and triple bunks in dormitories and converting day rooms into dormitories.
The new jails, in downtown Phoenix and southwest Phoenix, will add 4,549 new beds, but they won’t immediately ease the crowding.
Plans are to remodel two other jails, which will require their temporary closure, and demolishing a third. The inmate population has been growing at an annual rate of almost 4 percent.
Tent City, an outdoor jail where inmates live in government surplus military-style tents, will never close as long he’s sheriff, Arpaio said.
Shutting it down would be one of the first things Ayala said he would do if elected because the new jails will ease crowding.
Martin has no plans to close the facility, but said he would make it safer by housing only first-time offenders convicted of minor crimes rather than mixing them with hard-core criminals.
"We can’t afford to close Tent City," Martin said.
On every sheriff’s budget the last four years the agency has identified low pay for deputies and detention officers as a major issue. The department can’t keep qualified people or find qualified people to replace those departing.
Both Martin and Ayala said they’ll fight for higher pay for deputies and detention officers and they can free up money by cutting what they call an unnecessarily large command staff and some of Arpaio’s programs they say are not needed.
Arpaio said he has won a 32 percent pay increase for deputies and detention officers and he is going to fight for more.
"That helps us in recruiting," he said.
The county also approved a mass hiring of 42 deputies, all of whom are in the field, he said.
And even though there are currently no vacancies for deputies, Arpaio said he still needs more.
One of the more painful and controversial chapters in Arpaio’s tenure ended just before his current term began. In December 2000, the Department of Justice ended a civil rights investigation into the 1996 death of Scott Norberg, a 33-year-old Tempe man who died after detention officers strapped him into a restraint chair.
No charges were brought against any of Arpaio’s officers and the sheriff vowed to keep using the restraint chair to control unruly and violent inmates.
The wrongful death civil suit brought an $8.2 million settlement, most of it paid by an insurance company, and angering Arpaio because he was given no say in whether to settle.
Then on Aug. 6, 2001, detention officers put Scottsdale resident Charles Agster in the restraint chair after Phoenix police arrested him when he was acting bizarrely in a convenience store.
Agster, who had taken methamphetamine, stopped breathing in the restraint chair as detention officers strapped him in. His family took him off life support a few days later in the hospital.
Arpaio vowed not to settle the suit brought by Agster’s family and attorneys are appealing a U.S. District Court’s ruling in August against dismissing the sheriff from the suit.
Michael Manning, the Agster family’s attorney, said in court papers he will ask the jury for $20 million.
The vow not to settle applies to other cases in court. Arpaio said too often the county settles without telling him.
"I’m going to insist on fighting these cases," Arpaio said.
Arpaio may get his wish since there currently are a number of potentially explosive and damaging lawsuits in court involving inmates who died or were seriously injured in jail, jail conditions and people wrongfully imprisoned.
County records show 11 cases were filed in the past two years in which the Risk Management Department has alerted county insurance companies of potential losses greater than $5 million, the county’s deductible.
Martin said lawsuits are the result of insufficient training.
He predicted there will be a lawsuit arising out of a July 23 SWAT team raid in which an Ahwatukee Foothills home burned down and a dog died.
"We will see a lawsuit over this, whether it is the insurance company or the homeowner," Martin said.
Ayala said one way to avoid lawsuits is to improve training and secure jail accreditation, which would involve intense scrutiny, high standards and commitment to adhere them.
"They put you under the microscope," Ayala said.
Arpaio said he changed his vehicle pursuit policy in November 2003, prohibiting deputies from chasing people suspected of minor crimes, stealing cars and traffic violations in part because of lawsuits, but mostly for public safety.
Don’t expect much else to change if voters re-elect him, Arpaio said.
"Nothing changes. I continue my programs, my policies. I continue the Tent City. Nothing changes in policies, especially in the third-largest jail system in the United States," Arpaio said.