Why Did Sheriff Arpaio's Office Botch So Many Sex-Crime Investigations?

December 06, 2011 5:32 pm ET — Kate Conway

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio likes to bill himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff," but an Associated Press article published Sunday suggests that his office has failed to get tough on at least one very serious type of crime:

Both cases were among more than 400 sex-crimes reported to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office during a three-year period ending in 2007 — including dozens of alleged child molestations — that were inadequately investigated and sometimes not worked at all, according to current and former police officers familiar with the cases.

In El Mirage alone, where Arpaio's office was providing contract police services, officials discovered at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as 2 — in which the sheriff's office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.

Many of the victims were children of undocumented immigrants, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files.

The depth of the problem in Maricopa County begs the question: How exactly did the leadership in Sheriff Arpaio's office manage to overlook the gross mismanagement of the sex crimes division for a period of three years? It's hard to say, of course, exactly what went on internally — but if Arpaio's public persona is any clue, the neglect might have had something to do with the severely misplaced priorities of Maricopa County's top law enforcement official.

Arpaio has made a name for himself as a free-wheeling opponent of illegal immigration, using tactics that often look alarmingly like racial profiling and harassment. He's admitted to using clothing and speech as a basis for arresting those he suspects might be in the country illegally, and he's stated that illegal immigrants are "all dirty" and "they come with disease." His tactics and his rhetoric have made it clear that his focus in law enforcement is on one thing: immigration. And he hasn't exactly been subtle. As NPR writes, Arpaio "often seeks publicity" in his pursuit of undocumented immigrants. He frequently appears on Fox News. And in 2008, he even signed up to film a reality show about his escapades.

As if to illustrate his skewed perspective on crime, in a 2009 interview Arpaio refused to say that violent acts like rape and murder were worse than undocumented immigration:

When asked if he considered an illegal immigrant as serious a criminal as a rapist and a murderer, Arpaio demurred.

"Well, I don't know," he said. "I'm not going to compare the type of crime."

None of this is to say that Arpaio himself doesn't care at all about sex crimes, but with accusations of such serious oversights it's worth asking what's contributing to the dysfunction. In devoting time and resources to Arpaio's singular obsession, Maricopa County's attention may have been diverted from other crimes they were responsible for investigating. Perhaps its fame-seeking sheriff was too busy scheduling reality TV tapings and frisking Spanish-speakers to pay attention to lax investigations on the part of his sex crimes division.

Arpaio has publicly apologized to victims whose cases were ignored, and according to his office, the neglected cases have since been reopened and either pursued or dropped, as appropriate. But retroactively righting such a widespread problem is hardly enough, especially when inaction on the part of law enforcement could have led to re-victimization.