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Protests, grand jury challenge controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio

Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses chain-gang members in Phoenix in 2007.
Maricopa Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses chain-gang members in Phoenix in 2007.
Matt York, Associated Press

PHOENIX — With a sheriff's helicopter beating overhead, the man known as "Sheriff Joe" stood behind a line of officers as 10,000 people marched past — but this was not the usual show of affection and support for Joe Arpaio.

"Joe must go! Joe must go," whole families chanted, as they rounded the corner in front of the county jail complex run by the five-term Maricopa County sheriff famed for his confrontational tactics, his harsh jail policies and a gift for publicity. The parade of mostly brown-skinned people wanted to show they hated his trademark immigration patrols.

For years, Arpaio has been the rare politician whose popularity remained rock solid no matter the criticism. He was the self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff," unbeatable at the polls.

Today, however, some indicators have changed for the 77-year-old lawman — and it's not just the marching in the streets.

His soaring approval ratings dropped to 39 percent in one recent poll. Critics are emboldened by a federal grand jury that's examining abuse-of-power allegations against him and a second federal investigation that he says focuses on his immigration enforcement.

Arpaio and Andrew Thomas, the top Maricopa County prosecutor and a chief ally, face intense criticism for mounting what many people see as a political blood feud. They filed criminal charges against two county supervisors and the county's presiding criminal judge, and they've also ignited a spate of costly lawsuits. Arpaio and Thomas say they can't ignore credible allegations of corruption.

The charges against one supervisor were dismissed by a judge on Feb. 24. Thomas said he would seek to have charges against the other two officials dismissed and planned to turn the three investigations over to special prosecutors.

County Manager David Smith said sheriff's investigators went to the homes of 70 county and court staffers on nights and weekends last year in an attempt to intimidate.

Arpaio's message was clear, according to Smith: "We know where you live. We know where to find you. Do something we don't like, and you're at risk." Fear was behind a decision by county officials to sweep their offices for possible listening devices, at a cost of $14,000; no bugs were found.

Dozens of lawyers rallied outside a courthouse in late December to protest the criminal charges against Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe. And a prosecutor from a neighboring county who took over an earlier case against one county supervisor eventually turned against Arpaio and Thomas, likening their actions to "totalitarianism."

Thomas said he wasn't worried about his allegiance to the sheriff. "The only thing I worry about is making sure I've done my utmost to do my job," the prosecutor said.

In the eyes of critics, Arpaio is a racist bully driven by a hunger for publicity who has helped manufacture criminal charges against people who crossed him politically. They say he treats powerless people harshly because it's popular with voters.

But to his supporters, he is a standup guy who is doing what the public wants and is motivated by nothing more than a sense of duty. They say he's the only local police boss who has gotten off his duff to do something about illegal immigration and local corruption.

Love him or hate him, Arizonans are buzzing with one question: Will this latest round of controversy bring Sheriff Joe down?

Arpaio's response: He has survived other storms.

In a voice that sometimes evokes John Wayne, he attributes his longevity to a strong work ethic and a willingness to speak with reporters, which helped make him a nationally known figure. He also brags about his success in raising $1.2 million in campaign money over one year in a down economy.