Joe Arpaio

Joe Arpaio Sues for $147 Million Over New York Times Op-Ed Slamming His Cruelty

The op-ed's claims are harsh, but they're also true.


Laura Segall/REUTERS/Newscom

"America's toughest sheriff," also known as "America's worst lawman," is seeking $147.5 million in damages over a New York Times op-ed that pointed out some of his worst abuses of power.

First, a bit of background. Joe Arpaio served as sheriff of Maricopa County from 1993–2017. After losing his re-election bid in November 2016, he set his sights on the U.S. Senate. As it turns out, the Donald Trump-loving, illegal immigration-hating former lawman wasn't too popular, even among Arizona conservatives. He finished a distant third in the GOP primary with about 19 percent of the vote.

Following his loss, Times editorial board member Michelle Cottle penned an August 29 op-ed titled: "Well, at Least Sheriff Joe Isn't Going to Congress." Cottle slammed him for "terrorizing immigrants" and characterized his "24-year reign of terror" as "medieval in its brutality." Cottle's points are valid. Reason, in fact, has been reporting for years on the Arpaio regime's horrific abuses.

Unsurprisingly, Arpaio wasn't thrilled with the op-ed. On Tuesday, a lawyer for the ex-sheriff filed a libel lawsuit against Cottle and the Times alleging "several false, defamatory factual assertions." The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, claims those "assertions are carefully and maliciously calculated to damage and injure Plaintiff Arpaio both in the law enforcement community… as well as with Republican establishment and donors."

The lawsuit takes particular issue with several passages from Cottle's op-ed. Cottle called him "a true American villain" and said his "methods often crossed the line into the not-so legal." He's "a disgrace to law enforcement" and "a sadist masquerading as a public servant," she wrote. According to the lawsuit, those statements "portray Plaintiff Arpaio in a false light."

Cottle backed up those criticisms with plenty of previously reported facts about Arpaio's tenure. Nothing she said was a wild or even new accusation, though the lawsuit says they're "defamatory," since they "falsely accused" the former sheriff "of committing a serious crime." Here's the passage in question:

His 24-year reign of terror was medieval in its brutality. In addition to conducting racial profiling on a mass scale and terrorizing immigrant neighborhoods with gratuitous raids and traffic stops and detentions, he oversaw a jail where mistreatment of inmates was the stuff of legend. Abuses ranged from the humiliating to the lethal. He brought back chain gangs. He forced prisoners to wear pink underwear. He set up an outdoor "tent city," which he once referred to as a "concentration camp," to hold the overflow of prisoners. Inmates were beaten, fed rancid food, denied medical care (this included pregnant women) and, in at least one case, left battered on the floor to die.

The number of inmates who hanged themselves in his facilities was far higher than in jails elsewhere in the country. More disturbing still, nearly half of all inmate deaths on his watch were never explained.

At the same time, Mr. Arpaio's department could not be bothered to uphold the laws in which it had little interest. From 2005 through 2007, the sheriff and his deputies failed to properly investigate, or in some cases to investigate at all, more than 400 sex-crime cases, including those involving the rape of young children.

The language is harsh, but that doesn't make it any less true. Last year, for instance, a federal judge found Arpaio to be in criminal contempt of court for ignoring a 2011 order telling him, on constitutional grounds, to stop racially profiling and detaining Latino residents. As Reason's C.J. Ciaramella explained at the time, Arpaio was only let off the hook because President Donald Trump decided to pardon him.

Ciaramella further pointed out how prisoners were mistreated in Maricopa County jails, including at the infamous "tent city." As Cottle wrote, that mistreatment included inmates being forced to wear pink underwear and work on chain gangs. In one tragic case, a man who was being held in downtown Phoenix died after he was beaten and tased by deputies. And the terrible conditions for Maricopa County prisoners extended to at least one undocumented pregnant woman, who won $200,000 in damages after being shackled while in labor.

Cottle's assertion about inmate deaths, particularly suicides, under Arpaio's watch is valid as well. As the Phoenix New Times pointed out in a 2015 headline: "Prisoners Hang Themselves in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Jails at a Rate That Dwarfs Other County Lockups." From 1996–2015, 39 of the 157 inmates—nearly 25 percent—who died in custody hanged themselves. Plus, 73—or 46 percent—of the total deaths went unexplained.

Finally, Cottle's assertion about Arpaio's approach to sex crimes is also true. As The New York Times reported last year:

His deputies failed to investigate or conducted only the sketchiest of inquiries into hundreds of sex crimes between 2005 and 2007, investigations by Arizona law enforcement agencies have shown. Many of those cases involved molested children.

Arpaio even said at the time that "if there were any victims, I apologize to those victims."

If Arpaio thinks he's going to win $147.5 million on the basis that Cottle's claims aren't true, then he's sorely mistaken. But that's not the only weird part of his logic.

The lawsuit claims Arpaio plans to make another Senate run in 2020. His chances of winning have apparently "been severely harmed" by Cottle's op-ed. That's a laughable argument for several reasons. Setting aside the fact that he'll be 88 years old in 2020, Arpaio has been a controversial figure for a while. People hated him long before Cottle's op-ed, and they would have continued to do so even if she hadn't written it.

And to point out the obvious, Arpaio was never going to win in the first place. If he couldn't get 20 percent of Republicans to vote for him this time around, he probably won't do much better in 2020.

The Times, meanwhile, appears to be holding its own. "We intend to vigorously defend against the lawsuit," spokesperson Eileen Murphy told Politico.

Arizonians have shown they have no use for "America's worst lawman." Hopefully the court will dismiss Arpaio's frivolous lawsuit.