Sheriff Joe Arpaio

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Joshua Lott / Getty

Inmates walk alongside Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix

He likes to call himself "America's toughest sheriff" and even used that moniker as the title of his autobiography. It's a claim few people would challenge — but whether that makes Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff Joe Arpaio an effective law-enforcement officer or, as his critics say, a flagrant human-rights violator remains an open question. The stern law-and-order advocate has declared war on illegal immigration in his sprawling jurisdiction, which includes Phoenix, but now the Federal Government is reining him in. Arpaio, who gained national attention for housing his inmates in tents when jails reached capacity and forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear, said earlier this month that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has revoked his deputies' authority to arrest people on immigration violations in the field (they can still check immigration status and make arrests in county jails). A final decision by the Department of Homeland Security is expected to be made public on Oct. 14. Though Arpaio's severe tactics are popular among Arizonans, his deputies have attracted widespread criticism in their pursuit of illegal immigrants for harassment and the racial profiling of Latinos. Just a small fraction of the 33,000 arrests he has overseen have been based on documentation checks in the field, but Arpaio says the program to allow field checks is symbolically important: "This is a crime-deterrent program, too."

Fast Facts:

• Born June 14, 1932 in Springfield, Mass. His mother died in childbirth; his father ran an Italian grocery store.

• Joined the Army at 18, just before the start of the Korean War, and wrote medical reports. Later became a police officer in Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. Says that in Washington he learned to never back down from a fight, earning the department's "most assaulted officer" title in 1957. In Las Vegas, he once pulled over Elvis Presley and a female companion on a motorcycle.

• Later joined the predecessor to the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Narcotics, after being told they needed Italian-American agents to pursue members of the Mafia. Stayed with the agency for 32 years and worked around the world, retiring as head of the DEA's Arizona office.

• Elected Maricopa County sheriff in 1993 and re-elected to five four-year terms. Maricopa now has the nation's third largest sheriff's office. The inmate population has more than doubled during his tenure and now tops 10,000.

• Began the nation's first female and juvenile chain gangs.

• Claiming that pink is psychologically calming, has ordered Maricopa County inmates to wear pink underwear; Arpaio also uses pink handcuffs.

• Boasts that he has eliminated almost every comfort from county jails, including basketball, coffee, salt, pepper and movies. Inmates' TV choices are limited to networks such as the Disney Channel and C-SPAN.

• Says he provides the cheapest prisoner meals in the U.S., at just 15 each. He also reduced meals in the country's prisons to two a day, to save on labor costs. Inadequate meals were one reason a federal judge ruled against Arpaio and the county in 2008, finding that they violated prisoners' constitutional rights by depriving them of appropriate health care and housing them in unsanitary conditions. The judge noted that many inmates were forced to eat moldy bread and rotten fruit.

• Created a tent city to house more inmates at lower cost. Installed a neon sign on a guard tower that reads "Vacancy."

• In 2005, ordered nearly 700 maximum-security prisoners to march four blocks to a new jail facility wearing only pink underwear and flip-flops. "It's a security issue," Arpaio said.

• A consistently popular Republican, he has won all of his sheriff's elections by double digits.

• Has faced numerous complaints from Amnesty International, the ACLU and other rights groups. His office is being investigated by the Justice Department for alleged discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures.

• Told an interviewer in 2007 he had received 14 death threats in the previous three years.

• His office has been the subject of thousands of lawsuits while he's been sheriff, leading to a reported $43 million in lawsuit settlements and expenses.

• Has been married to his wife Ava for more than 50 years. Has two children and several grandchildren.

Quotes By:

"You know what? They can take away anything they want. I'm still the elected sheriff. I'm still going to enforce the state laws and I'm going to enforce the federal laws."
Telling Fox News Channel's Glenn Beck that he will continue to pursue illegal immigrants. Oct. 9, 2009

"Too many jails in this country are just shy of being like hotels. That isn't right. I keep saying, 'People shouldn't live better in jail than they do on the outside.' Here in my jails, they don't."
Arpaio on his campaign website,

"It's 120 degrees in Iraq and the soldiers are living in tents and they didn't commit any crimes, so shut your mouths."
Arpaio to inmates living in tents that reached 138 degrees during a heat wave. Associated Press, July 25, 2003

Quotes About:

"Every time I watch Sheriff Joe unleash his 'posse' on another neighborhood with a high Hispanic population, arresting people with brown skin for the most stupid of offenses — honking their horn, having a taillight out, not signaling when they change lanes — I have to wonder how anyone could not see this as an assault on an entire race of people."
Columnist Jana Bommersbach (Phoenix June 2008)

"Over the past few weeks, sheriff Arpaio's actions have infringed on the civil rights of our residents. They have put our residents' well-being, and the well-being of law-enforcement officers, at risk."
A letter from Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon to the then U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey calling for an investigation into whether Arpaio had committed civil rights violations. (Phoenix New Times, June 2008)

"The sheriff says he is keeping the peace, but it seems as if he is doing just the opposite — a useless, reckless churning of fear and unrest."
(New York Times editorial, April 9, 2008)