Business is booming thanks to the country's meanest, toughest, sheriff

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 July, 1996, 12:00am

He sends convicts to live in tents in the desert, makes them wear bright pink jumpsuits, feeds them near-inedible cuisine and puts them to work in chains.

He has set up his own private militia of armed civilians, and been feted on the national talk-show circuit.

He has become the pin-up boy of the hang-'em-and-flog-'em approach to crime, and he and his family have received death threats for his pains.

But as far as voters go, Joe Arpaio can do no wrong. With an approval rating constantly above 90 per cent, the 63-year-old sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona is probably the most popular elected official in America.

While the tough-talking law enforcement official is often criticised for his love affair with the media and his decidedly individualistic approach to his job, Mr Arpaio has even been recommended for the job as chief of the nation's federal jail system.

'I want everyone in this country to know that we have the meanest, toughest sheriff in America,' he said recently. 'Bring your business here, bring your families . . . business is booming because people have faith in the sheriff and law-enforcement.' Mr Arpaio, whose county takes in the city of Phoenix and includes half the state's population, has been called the most controversial law-enforcer since Wyatt Earp.

The reason he seems able to do no wrong is that in a nation where criminals are used to being treated with kid gloves, he has truly put the factor of deterrence back into the law and order equation.

His philosophy is grounded in the fact that criminals should not expect to be treated like an average citizen.

He banned coffee, cigarettes and other comforts from his jails, makes inmates watch the Disney Channel and dull political programmes, and charges them US$3 (HK$23) for a visit to the nurse. He serves cold food that barely passes health safety standards.

Mr Arpaio's tactics grew out of the budgetary pressures that face every town and city. Rather than spend millions the county did not have to build a new prison, he borrowed Korean War-issue tents from the military and slapped them in the middle of the desert. He loves taking TV crews to film his inmates at work on the chain gang, their ankles bound together.

But his most controversial project, a 2,500-member 'posse' of armed volunteers, has come against bitter political opposition. The posse, which he helps run with private funding, goes out on to the streets to harass prostitutes and even drug-dealers.

'Sure I'm taking some risks, but it's worth it,' he said.