Yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet Paul Penzone, a Phoenix police officer for the past 21 years, who is running for Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona. Now, ordinarily, I don’t have a lot of interest in races for Sheriff in a state I have never lived in. However, this is a special race because Paul Penzone is running against incumbent Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the 80 year old Bull Connor of our time.
There is scarcely enough time to go through all of the outrageous abuses of power attributed to Sheriff Arpaio. Just last year, the Justice Department released the findings of an investigation into allegations of abuses of power, racial profiling, and jailhouse abuse by Sheriff Arpaio’s department. The Department concluded that Sheiff Arapio’s department had a “a pattern or practice of violating the United States Constitution.” Sheriff Arpaio has been known to terrorize the Latino community in Phoenix, Arizona, using posse-style raids into the community to round up suspected undocumented immigrants. The Justice Department called the racial profiling by the department the worst instance of racial profiling to date. Arpaio’s program to target immigrants is not about safety but rather about animosity against Latinos. Arpaio has said, of his anti-illegal immigration efforts, “Ours is an operation where we want to go after illegals, not the crime first…It’s a pure program. You go after them, and you lock them up.” The Justice Department sued Sheriff Arpaio’s department in May 2012.
The terrorization of the Latino Community by Sheriff Joe has made Phoenix a less safe place than it was when the Latino community felt that they could have contact with the police that would not likely result in their incarceration. Where people are afraid that the police will arrest them because of the color of their skin or their accents, they do not report crimes, call in tips or otherwise help the police, resulting in a less safe community. When this is combined with Arizona’s SB 1070 “papers please” law, the trust between the community and the police has been eviscerated. This is the status quo in Maricopa County and what is most disturbing about it is that Sheriff Joe’s ideas are catching on. Several states have enacted SB 1070 style statutes and, although courts, have generally voided most of these laws, the rough justice of Sheriff Joe has inspired copycat efforts by other wannabe sheriffs, who are drawn to Sheriff Joe’s iconic status among the hateful right. This iconic status, however, comes at the expense of real policing which requires deep bonds of trust between the community served and the police department.
Paul Penzone gets this. While he would get my attention simply by not being Sheriff Joe, Penzone plainly articulates the costs of Sheriff Joe’s reign of terror and speak passionately about building back trust in the Latino community. Mr. Penzone ran a program called Testigos Silencios (Silent Witness) which was instrumental in catching two serial killers and provided the Latino community with an opportunity to interact with the police in a constructive way. It would be a great thing to send Sheriff Joe packing, just as Russell Pearce, the noxious author of SB 1070, was booted from office. But it is a big bonus for the people of Arizona, particularly the Latino community, to get a Sheriff who rejects the racial profiling, abuses, hysteria and fear-mongering that have characterized the Sheriff Joe era and who views his job as to address crime and to serve his community and not make headlines.
Penzone is within 6 points of Sheriff Arpaio. No challenger to Arpaio has ever come within a dozen points of him. The defeat of Russell Pearce and the caricature of Arizona as an international hate state have energized those good people in Arizona who want to return their state to the civilized world. Arapio raises millions in the conservative echo chamber through stunts like challenging President Obama’s citizenship. Penzone is ridiculously underfunded against Arpaio but he has mounted a serious challenge and all those who deplore the climate of fear that Sheriff Joe has created should send a check to Penzone and give him a fighting chance to take down this insidious man.