Trump pardons controversial sheriff, Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt over racial profiling

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday granted a pardon to former Arizona lawman and political ally Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," less than a month after he was convicted of criminal contempt in a case involving his department's racial profiling policy.

Self-proclaimed 'toughest sheriff in America' known for hardline immigration stance

Then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is joined by Joe Arpaio, the then-sheriff of metro Phoenix, during a news conference in 2016. Trump pardoned Arpaio late Friday. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday granted a pardon to former Arizona lawman and political ally Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," less than a month after he was convicted of criminal contempt in a case involving his department's racial profiling policy.

Trump had signalled this week that the first presidential pardon of his administration would go to Arpaio, 85, whom he has frequently praised for his hardline immigration stance. 

The White House said the ex-sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County was a "worthy candidate" for a presidential pardon.

The action came several days after Trump, at a rally in downtown Phoenix, strongly hinted that he intended to issue a pardon.

Both questioned Obama's birthplace

"So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?" Trump asked supporters. "I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK."

Arpaio, who became linked with Trump during the campaign for their hardline immigration views, was convicted of a misdemeanour for intentionally defying a judge's order to stop his traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. 

Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona from 1993 to 2016, presides over his office in Phoenix in October 2016. Arpaio had been awaiting sentencing for defying court orders before U.S. President Donald Trump pardoned him.​ (Jason Burles/CBC)

Both politicians questioned the authenticity of then-President Barack Obama's birth certificate and have a similar history in sparring with judges.

"I have to thank the president for what he has done, that's for sure," Arpaio told Reuters in a brief telephone interview 
from his Arizona home. "He's a big supporter of law enforcement."

'I'm not going away'

Arpaio said his lawyer was sent a copy of the pardon on Friday afternoon and he has scheduled a news conference to 
discuss what he said were new details in the case. He declined to say if he would run again for sheriff.

"I'm not going away," added Arpaio.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announces newly launched program aimed at providing security around schools in Anthem, Ariz. His controversial tenure as sheriff brought Arpaio national headlines for massive roundups of suspected illegal immigrants and for the way he ran the Maricopa County jail. (Laura Segall/Reuters)

Civil rights advocates slammed Trump's decision as an endorsement of racist and unlawful immigration policies.

"Once again, the president has acted in support of illegal, failed immigration enforcement practices that target people of 
colour and that have been struck down by the courts," said American Civil Liberties Union deputy legal director Cecilia 
Wang, who sought the court injunction against Arpaio.

'A dangerous message'

Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former head of the U.S. Justice 
Department's civil rights division, said in a statement that the pardon sends "a dangerous message that a law enforcement officer who abused his position of power and defied a court order can simply be excused by a president who himself clearly does not respect the law."

Arpaio, who campaigned for Trump in 2016, was convicted on July 31 by U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who ruled he had willfully violated a 2011 injunction barring his officers from stopping and detaining Latino motorists solely on suspicion that they were in the country illegally.

Arpaio admitted to inadvertently disobeying the court order but said his behaviour did not meet a criminal standard. He said the prosecution was a politically motivated attempt by the Obama administration to undermine his re-election bid.

Arpaio had been scheduled to be sentenced on Oct. 5 and faced a fine and maximum sentence of six months in jail.

Reinstated chain gangs

His controversial tenure as sheriff brought Arpaio national headlines for massive roundups of suspected illegal immigrants and for the way he ran the Maricopa County jail.

He reinstated chain gangs, made inmates wear uniforms that were pink or old-fashioned black and white stripes and forbade them coffee, salt and pepper.

Prisoners dressed in striped inmate uniforms walk under the hot Arizona sun at tent city jail opened near Phoenix by then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Jean-Loup Sense/AFP/Getty Images)

Critics said as sheriff Arpaio spent too much time courting publicity and not enough on basic policing. The East Valley 
Times newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for a 2009 series showing that arrests in the county had dropped while many violent crimes were not investigated and response call times had increased. 

In the statement Friday night, the White House said, "Throughout his time as Sheriff, Arpaio continued his life's work of protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now 85 years old, and after more than 50 years of admirable service to our Nation, he is worthy candidate for a Presidential pardon."

Busy night for the White House

The announcement of Arpaio's pardon was just one of several pieces of news that came out of the White House late Friday.

  • Trump directed the Pentagon to extend indefinitely a ban on transgender individuals joining the military, though he appeared to leave open the possibility of allowing some already in uniform to remain.
  • White House national security aide Sebastian Gorka said he had resigned from his position, though a White House official told The Associated Press that he did not resign but "no longer works at the White House."
  • Trump left for Camp David near Thurmont, Md., where he'll keep an eye on Hurricane Harvey as the Category 4 storm takes aim at Texas.
  • Trump also has to contend with North Korea's latest weapons tests, after three short-range ballistic missiles were launched by the isolated nation. The U.S. initially suggested that all had failed. But a report Saturday said the U.S. had revised its assessment, and the two missiles initially thought to have failed in flight actually flew about 250 kilometres.

With files from The Associated Press and CBC News