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Joe Arpaio Is All Talk

Conor Friedersdorf

Earlier on this blog, I argued that the best case against Arizona's new immigration law is the experience of Maricopa County, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the leading lawman in Maricopa County, has been focusing on illegal immigration for some time. As a result, emergency response times rose, arrest rates in criminal investigations fell dramatically, and extra overtime costs ran into the millions of dollars.

Now I see via Dara Lind that the man who calls himself "the toughest sheriff in America" has a decidedly weak record when it comes to actually reducing crime:

...the Arizona Department of Public Safety released its (more detailed) Crime in Arizona 2009 report last week as well. So how has Arizona been holding up...? So well, you wouldn't even know there was a crime wave if you didn't trust Arizona Republicans to give you the unvarnished truth about their state.

Violent crime -- murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault -- is down in Arizona for the third consecutive year. Not only has it plunged 15% from its peak in 2006, but it's 12% lower than it was when the Department of Public Safety started putting crime reports online in 2002. So the current decline isn't just a regression to the mean after a spike in crime, but evidence of a continuing trend of decreasing violent crime in the state. The trend even holds up along the border: sheriffs for three of Arizona's four border counties reported less violent crime in 2009 than they did in 2002. (The sheriff's office for the tiny county of Santa Cruz went from six violent crimes in 2002 to fifteen in 2009 -- hardly a significant sample size.)

There is at least one high-profile exception to the long-term statewide trend: Maricopa County, or at least the area under the rule of self-proclaimed  "America's Toughest Sheriff" Joe Arpaio. For years, Arpaio has been earning notoriety for putting immigration enforcement ahead of other law-enforcement priorities -- a policy which will become the law of the land for all Arizona police once SB 1070 goes into effect at the end of July. But toughness doesn't always get results. Even the Maricopa Sheriff's Office recorded less violent crime in 2009 than it did in 2008, but that's the first time crime has fallen in five years. And since 2002, as violent crime has fallen 12% across Arizona, it's risen under Arpaio by a staggering fifty-eight percent.

Not all of Maricopa County is doing so badly -- just the parts under the jurisdiction of the sheriff's office. The local police departments watching Maricopa's cities and towns are doing just fine. Phoenix, as Dickey notes, is a veritable success story, with a 14% drop in violent crime since 2002; other municipalities in the county, like Scottsdale (15% drop) and Mesa (30% drop), have been even more effective. It's just the unincorporated parts of the county -- the region under Arpaio's purportedly iron fist -- where violent crime has spiked so alarmingly.

As far as I see it, there are two possibilities here. The first is that Arpaio really has been fighting a "crime wave" committed by a bunch of  "criminal aliens" who are deliberately avoiding the border region, hanging out in Maricopa County and taking care to commit their crimes outside city limits. Even if this were plausible, it wouldn't speak terribly well to the effectiveness of Arpaio's tactics.

Alternatively, of course, it could be the case that other law-enforcement officials in the state (from the chief of Tucson to the sheriffs of Pima and Santa Cruz Counties) are correct when they warn that Arpaio-like, 1070-like tactics cause crime to increase.
Perhaps Maricopa County voters should elect a sheriff who actually keeps them safe from crime rather than one who talks about how tough he is on criminals, then implements crime-fighting policies that fail.

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