On Friday night, minutes before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, Donald Trump issued the first presidential pardon of his administration to Joe Arpaio, the longtime Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff whose record of proudly tough, sometimes brutal, and ultimately illegal policing of Latino immigrants made him among the nation’s most admired and reviled lawmen.
In 2011, a federal judge ordered Arpaio to stop targeting Latino drivers. He refused. In July, a judge found he had willingly resisted that order, and could serve up to six months in jail for criminal contempt. He had yet to be sentenced, and the pardon ends the possibility that the 85-year-old Arpaio will see jail time.
In a tightly worded two-paragraph statement, Trump praised Arpaio’s “admirable service to our nation.” The statement doesn't mention his conviction, or the various human rights scandals that plagued his 24-year tenure as the sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county, which includes Phoenix. The county spent tens of millions defending Arpaio in court from various charges and settling cases resulting from inhumane jail conditions.
“Pardoning Joe Arpaio is a slap in the face to the people of Maricopa County,” Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton wrote on Friday night. “Sheriff Joe Arpaio targeted and terrorized Latino families because of the color of their skin. He was ordered by a federal judge to stop and he refused. He received a fair trial and a justifiable conviction, and there's nothing the President can do to change that awful legacy and the stain he had left on our community.”
Trump had hinted during a Tuesday rally in Phoenix that he might pardon “Sheriff Joe,” who was one of the earliest national figures to endorse his campaign. “Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he asked a rabid crowd at the Phoenix Convention Center. “I won’t do it tonight because I don’t want to cause any controversy. I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.” Despite the warning, Trump apparently moved without consulting the Department of Justice.
By issuing the pardon on Friday night as Texas braces for its first Category 4 hurricane in more than a half-century, Trump pretty much ensured that it won’t be next week’s biggest story. But it’ll make waves with his base, including hard-line anti-immigration voters who supported the sheriff’s abusive tactics, seeing them as justified in the face of widespread undocumented immigration. And it will resound in Arizona, where a largely Latino organizing campaign helped oust Arpaio from office in November by nearly 10 percentage points. To make matters more complicated, Arpaio and Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the Republican who is up for election next year and has feuded with Trump, are old enemies stemming from a suit involving the senator’s son.
It wasn’t just Arpaio’s racial profiling and neighborhood raids that earned him his reputation. It was also what happened inside his jails. Between 2004 and 2008, according to a Phoenix New Times investigation, the county jails of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston—the nation’s four largest cities—were sued 43 times. Maricopa County, which has six times fewer inmates, was sued almost 220 times. Here’s what William Finnegan wrote about Arpaio’s jails in a 2009 New Yorker profile:
His deputies, particularly his jail guards, seem to have less sense of how far they can go. Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims alleging abuse have been filed against Arpaio’s department by inmates—or, in the case of deaths in detention, by their families. A federal investigation found that deputies had used stun guns on prisoners already strapped into a “restraint chair.” The family of one man who died after being forced into the restraint chair was awarded more than six million dollars as the result of a suit filed in federal court. The family of another man killed in the restraint chair got $8.25 million in a pre-trial settlement. (This deal was reached after the discovery of a surveillance video that showed fourteen guards beating, shocking, and suffocating the prisoner, and after the sheriff’s office was accused of discarding evidence, including the crushed larynx of the deceased.)”
But the sheriff himself always stayed above the law, and after a brief brush with justice, can live out his days in freedom, thanks to the benevolence of the president.
This is not the first time Trump has shown that his avowed interest in “law and order” is heavy on order and light on law. Just a month ago, in a speech to Suffolk County police officers, he encouraged officers to rough up detainees. He has flirted with appointing Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, under whose watch a mentally ill inmate died of thirst, to a position at the Department of Homeland Security.
What makes the Arpaio case different is the unique role that Sheriff Joe played for Hispanic Americans. The protest outside the president’s speech in Phoenix was not just anti-Trump; it was anti-Arpaio, attended by people like Congressman Raúl Grijalva, who represents Tucson. “We’re here to protest against the pardon of Joe Arpaio, who is, for us, the person who has most divided and persecuted our people," Grijalva told Univision.
“If you're wronged by law enforcement, this president doesn't have your back. Racist vigilantism has a champion in the White House,” Grijalva tweeted on Friday.
The past four years have given black Americans many faces of a law enforcement system they believe does not value their lives: Men like Jeronimo Yanez, who shot Philando Castile, and Daniel Pantaleo, who put Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold, and Timothy Loehmann, who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice. And for each of those deaths, there is a paired moment of anger and despair in the form of a nonindictment or not-guilty finding.
Hispanic Americans find themselves newly under siege by Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement police. (Just Friday, in a break with precedent, the Department of Homeland Security decided not to suspend internal border patrol checkpoints as evacuation orders were issued to heavily Hispanic regions of South Texas, giving mixed-paperwork families the choice between the storm and jail.) For Hispanic Americans, Arpaio’s conviction was a symbol that—despite all the abuse that might take place in county jails, all the humiliation of a father detained outside his child’s school, all the fear of going to a county court where immigration officers haunt the halls, and the shame of not going to church on Sunday for fear of being rounded up—the American system was ultimately a just one that would punish men for their crimes. That was the message, a hopeful if not entirely realistic one, that Arpaio’s conviction sent.
His pardon does the opposite.