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Why the Phoenix Police Department Sucks

A month ago I came across an outrageous story about a police officer who rifled through a defense attorney’s personal papers in search of incriminating evidence. This was happening while the trial was taking place and it was captured on video.  The judge ordered Adam Stoddard  (the police officer) to apologize or to go to jail for contempt of court. This seemed like a minor scandal being overshadowed by a corrupt police department in Phoenix and a populist sheriff who seems to have no fear about using the law for his own means.

A month later, it appears that the Sheriff said the police officer acted appropriately, and there are signs that the other police officers are retaliating against the judge. But this skirmish is only a blip in the larger series of power struggles between the judicial and executive branches of Phoenix. Already, the federal government has challenged the Sheriff’s authority to round up illegal immigrants and launched an FBI investigation. 

Nicholas Riccardi wrote an LA Times investigative piece about Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio and Thomas filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the county supervisors, administrators and several judges who have ruled against the two in prior cases.
Arpaio and Thomas contended there was a conspiracy to assign the Stapley prosecution to an anti-Thomas judge, part of an effort to cover up what they call a wasteful county effort to build a new courthouse.
County officials noted that Arpaio and Thomas have sued them six times in efforts to regain power over their budgets — and they lost every time.
Tensions escalated this week when the county attorney filed criminal charges against the presiding judge of the county’s criminal courts, alleging bribery and obstruction of justice for ruling against Arpaio and prosecutors in some of those previous legal battles.
Wilcox, whom Thomas charged this week with violating state laws by voting on government contracts for a charitable organization that gave one of her businesses a loan, said she had been stunned by the sheriff’s conduct.
"They have made life hell on everybody," she said of Arpaio and Thomas."Every time you speak out, they investigate you."

TV Station KPHO  did another investigative report alleging that the sheriff’s office is using its authority to take out vendettas against critics.

Emptywheel summarizes the dirt on this sheriff and DA. Amazingly, the Phoenix mayor himself went to DC to plead for a federal investigation into the Sheriff’s office.

From a thousand miles away, the story seems surreal. My take is that Adam Stoddard, the police officer who stole the papers, was not evil but just a clueless  idiot and should have apologized. Instead he received terrible  advice from the sheriff’s office about what he should do and became stubborn as a result. The problem is that the sheriff is relatively popular and people are afraid to cross his path.

The local press provides the only sort of political pressure, but  a “tough on crime” populist is likely to be immune (unless  Arpaio does something truly outrageous). As someone who lives in a city with the likes of Tom Delay, I see a pattern. Egotistical big cheese becomes unable to grasp that the rules apply to him and eventually breaks rules from which there is no defense. 

It may take years for Arpaio to do something so indefensible that even his political allies abandon him. But the signs are there already. It’s just a matter of time before this blows up.

Update: My timing is impeccable. Nightline did an interview with Arpaio tonight. Allegations of mistreatment by guards, a botched prostitution crackdown and manipulation of crime statistics to hide “inactive” cases.  Even weirder is that commenters on Nightline’s website are overwhelmingly in favor of the sheriff’s tactics.

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