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Arizona stirs another critical debate

Sheriff Clarence Dupnik speaking at an event

There is an interesting side-story to the national fury unleashed by the tragic and senseless shootings in Tucson that have stirred a national and timely debate about the volume and volatility of the political discourse in this country. On the day of the shootings, the sheriff of the county in which the horror took place suggested that “vitriolic rhetoric” on radio and television was hurting America. “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this nation is getting to be outrageous,” stated Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. In subsequent interviews, Sheriff Dupnik labeled several, well-known conservative radio commentators as “irresponsible.”

Virtually unnoticed in the firestorm that erupted in the wake of Sheriff Dupnik’s remarks is the fact that in the county just to the north of his jurisdiction resides another law enforcement official, Joseph Arpaio, who revels in the self-anointed reputation of being “America’s toughest sheriff.” As sheriff of Maricopa County, Arpaio is an outspoken supporter of Arizona’s recent anti-immigration legislation, which Sheriff Dupnik calls “a national embarrassment.”

Arpaio brags on his web page about instituting chain gangs for women and juveniles — along with the males committed to his facilities — and delights in pointing out that the average cost of meals in his jail is 15 cents. The jail serves only two meals a day and does not provide salt or pepper which, according to the sheriff, saves the county $20,000 a year. In what is perhaps the most stupendous of Sheriff Arpaio’s antics, his inmates are required to wear pink underwear in a facility that also issues pink sheets and towels to all inmates. This practice was initiated by the sheriff after his ostensible discovery that the color pink has a calming effect on inmate behavior.

Quite apart from the national debate over overheated political rhetoric, Sheriffs Dupnik and Arpaio depict two sharply contrasting realities of law enforcement in America. Both see their tasks as maintenance of public order and the enforcement of the law; one treasures the importance of going about the tasks of policing professionally and of adhering to Constitutional values and standards in the process. The other takes pride in using the power of policing to suppress and intimidate those who fall under its purview.

In Pima County, the job of law enforcement is seen as that of apprehending violators of the law and letting the rest of the criminal justice process take its course, in the belief that this is the best way to insure justice. In the case of Maricopa County, its sheriff has taken it upon himself not just to apprehend but also to degrade and humiliate prisoners in the belief that his task is to punish — as severely and inhumanely as possible — anyone who falls in his clutches.

These two realities of law enforcement represent policing, in one form or another, all across America today. For those who believe in the fundamental American values of justice and equity — including professional law enforcement officers — Sheriff Arpaio is a national outrage and a blight on law enforcement. But there are law enforcement circles in which he is considered a shining example of how the job ought to be done.

This debate — about which form and style of policing and law enforcement a community will encourage and tolerate — is the one that ought to be front and center in every community across the nation, including our own.

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