On Friday, President Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-styled “America’s Toughest Sheriff” who made headlines for dyeing his inmates’ underwear pink. He also rose to fame for his merciless idea to stash petty offenders into tents in the desert – where temperatures often reached up to 140 degrees (because he’s tough! get it?).
Arpaio tackled the rehabilitation of convicts with the compassion and thoughtfulness of an alcoholic Dad trying to coach his son in a sports movie. He treated his role as sheriff as if he was penning the script for a new bond villain, constantly searching for new ways to torture his captives in order to garner more media attention. Once that media came, Sheriff Joe would brag about how much money he saves taxpayers. For instance, he was quick to point out that he saved $30,000 by eliminating salt and pepper in the dining hall.
Yet, the sheriff was less quick to detail the cost of the black and white uniforms he put prisoners in nor the custom pink handcuffs he ordered because they look cute on television (Arpaio once boasted that he did 200 appearances a month). More importantly, Sheriff Joe never mentions how much taxpayers have had to pay out via the thousands of lawsuits against him and his staff. Citizen paid over $14 million alone due to his guards killing already restrained inmates with stun guns. Another jury awarded a man over $1 million after it found that the sheriff’s department framed the man for plotting to kill Sheriff Joe – which nicely encapsulates both the corruption and narcissism of Arpaio. Estimates pegged the total value of payouts due to Sheriff Joe’s staff and creative programs at over $43 million as of 2009 – which is significantly more than any amount of money the “tough guy” saved taxpayers on spices.
All of this would perhaps be fine if it were remotely plausible that Sheriff Joe was acting in this manner in the name of justice, but it’s immediately clear he’s doing it to build up the name of Sheriff Joe. Arpaio is not buying pink handcuffs because they cuff hands better, he’s buying them because he wants to promote his two books. He didn’t start a “sheriff’s posse” with Steven Seagal and Lou Ferrigno because aging action stars make for more effective posses, he’s doing it to increase his celebrity and to push forward his unending quest to meet Shaquille Oneal.
Arpaio is the law enforcement equivalent of an Instagram whore, only instead of taking bikini selfies, he’s corrupting the justice system. When he brags to journalists that he makes inmates watch the Food Channel so that they are reminded of how starving they are, that’s the equivalent of a sorority girl posting a picture of herself licking a Popsicle while wearing Princess Leia’s slave outfit. When he rides around in a literal tank, that’s his version of twerking in front of a mirror wearing yoga pants.
The irony of the Sheriff Joe saga is that his cruel methods were often defended with a common retort – “if you don’t like it, don’t break the law.” But more than any of his prisoners, Sheriff Joe himself was incapable of following this simple maxim – which is why Arpaio was held in contempt. And contempt is not like violating one of the minor statutes that could land you in Arpaio’s tent city – contempt means that you, specifically, were given a legal obligation, and yet you willfully ignored the court’s rule of law. In this instance, a federal court ruled that Sheriff Joe’s past conduct violated the United States constitution, then repeatedly ordered Arpaio to stop such conduct, yet Arpaio continued to violate the injunction issued by the court. Basically, cyclists in the Tour de France are better at following the rules than Sheriff Joe.
Make no mistake, Trump is within his rights to pardon Sheriff Joe, but it is important to remember that Arpaio is not famous because he ended crime in Arizona. While he has shown great skill in his ability to manipulate the media, he has not shown a similar ability to reduce recidivism in his county. His deranged methods showed no measurable effect on crime. Arpaio is a Kardashian – he courted fame through controversy and eventually became famous for being famous.
In short, Sheriff Joe is a camera-obsessed idiot who values appearing tough and powerful over actual, effective governing. It is perhaps not surprising that Trump developed a fondness for him. However, if the president actually wants to make America great again, he should focus on someone of substance, rather than celebrating a man who dyed underwear pink for publicity.