Day 6

Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter on Joe Arpaio's racial profiling and Presidential pardon

Former U.S. Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now the first person pardoned by President Donald Trump. But a Pulitzer-prize winning investigative journalist doesn't think he should get off so lightly.
Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential candidate, with Joe Arpaio, then sheriff of metro Phoenix, during a news conference in Marshalltown, Iowa, in January 2016. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, is now the first person pardoned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump hinted at Arpaio's pardon in a largely unscripted campaign speech at a rally in Phoenix on Tuesday.

I think he's going to be just fine.- U.S. President Donald Trump

"So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?" Trump called out to the crowd. "I'll make a prediction: I think he's going to be just fine."

On Friday night, Trump followed through on that prediction with a Presidential pardon.

Arpaio is one of the few local U.S. sheriffs whose name is recognized around the world, largely for his tough stance on illegal immigrants and for using racial profiling as part of his immigration crackdowns.

On July 31, 2017, he was convicted for contempt of court and could have faced up to six months in prison had he not been pardoned. Arpaio failed to follow the orders of a federal judge to stop detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they were in the country illegally. 

In 2009, Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigative work into Sheriff Arpaio's immigration enforcement. Their series was called "Reasonable Doubt," and it was published in the East Valley Tribune, based out of Maricopa County.

Gabrielson is now a reporter for ProPublica, and as he tells Day 6 guest-host Peter Armstrong, he's concerned about the message a pardon would convey.


The rise of Joe Arpaio

Arpaio first started making headlines in the summer of 1993, when he opened an outdoor tent city as a makeshift prison.

The sheriff created the tent city to cope with the overflow from prisons already filled to capacity, due in part to his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Temperatures can reach 54 degrees Celsius in Arizona in the summer.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announces a program aimed at providing security around schools in Anthem, Arizona, in January 2013. (Laura Segall/Reuters)

The prison was meant to be temporary, but the outdoor detention centre still houses a few hundred inmates. It's set to close this October.

Arpaio also made headlines for issuing the prisoners in the camp pink underwear, pink socks and pink bedding, saying that he hoped the colour would deter any stealing.

But in 2007, Arpaio caught the attention of Gabrielson and Giblin for another reason: the police department had blown its overtime budget only months into the fiscal year.

"Simultaneously, they were conducting these massive immigration enforcements, these sweeps in largely Hispanic neighbourhoods where they were bringing in well over 100 deputies and clearly spending a tonne of money," explains Gabrielson.

"Being the brilliant reporters we were, Paul and I [said], 'I wonder if these two things are connected?'" Gabrielson says with a laugh.

Immigrant inmates show off a pair of pink underwear while sitting on a bunk in the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Reasonable doubt

"So we went to answer two questions: one, how is the sheriff's office conducting its immigration enforcement? And then, two: what affect is it having on everything else the sheriff's office is supposed to be doing?" explains Gabrielson.

We ultimately found that a pretty good portion of ... the Special Victim's Unit — sex crimes, rapes, those types of things — all but ceased to operate,- Ryan Gabrielson, investigative reporter

As they carried out their investigative work, Gabrielson and Giblin found that many duties of the sheriff's office were being neglected due to the focus on illegal immigration.

They found that before Arpaio stepped up immigration enforcement, the arrest rate was approximately 10 per cent in Maricopa County, which is not good. But as the immigration crackdowns became the focus, that arrest rate dropped down below four per cent.

"We ultimately found that a pretty good portion of that was the Special Victims Unit — sex crimes, rapes, those types of things — all but ceased to operate," says Gabrielson.

"They had just ceased to do criminal investigations for other reasons and nobody was paying attention and it piled up — hundreds and hundreds of uninvestigated cases that nobody was doing anything about because the force was converting into an immigration enforcement agency."

Gabrielson says the patrol division was also hit hard in being redirected to do immigration enforcement. This had a negative impact on emergency response times.

"The average response time was getting up to around 16 minutes on the most serious calls," says Gabrielson.


Arpaio's tactics

Gabrielson says Arpaio had a lot of support from older white residents living on the outskirts of Phoenix. He also responded to requests from political supporters and business owners who would ask that the area around their stores be cleared of people suspected of being immigrants.

In those cases, the sheriff's office would carry out sweeps that involved hundreds of officers and volunteers who would stop almost anyone and any car in that area, particularly people of colour.

On the road, the focus was on stopping undocumented immigrants from travelling through Maricopa County to another destination.

Undocumented immigrants walk through the Maricopa County "Tent City Jail" to get exercise on April 30, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona. The controversial jail was run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been an outspoken critic of illegal immigration. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Gabrielson recalls being in a patrol car one night when the officer driving spotted a van he suspected of carrying a large number of immigrants.

"He made a stop and turned to me and said: 'Failure to signal, you saw that.' And in fact, the car hadn't changed lanes — it hadn't moved at all, there was nothing to signal. So … it was a probable cause that had no basis in reality."

But Gabrielson says the bigger issue is that the police felt that they had nothing to hide, and that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing.

"Later that night, as they were calling in the details of their report to their superior, the deputy I was with forgot the probable cause that he was citing, and his boss joked aloud: 'Hold on, he's thinking of something to make up,'" recalls Gabrielson. "They just felt there was nothing wrong with what they were doing."


The message in the pardon

"I think it's pretty clear that the president believes that undocumented immigrants are one of the primary economic and public safety threats to this country," Gabrielson notes, "and that whatever you need to do to combat them and to remove them from this country can be justified."

Arpaio has publicly stated that he did not like federal authorities telling him how to run his office, and he was adamant that he would continue to racially profile and stop people based on assumptions about their immigration status.

"I think the message is that Joe Arpaio's job was to go after illegal immigrants regardless of what other responsibilities he had and regardless of what the Constitution says. And the pardon will be the president following through with that belief."