Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona is once again gracing media headlines, first for announcing last week that he was going to use chain gangs of DUI offenders to pick up trash outside of Chase Field during the MLB All-Star week, and today for changing his mind amidst rising criticism. Elected all the way back in 1992, Sheriff Arpaio (the head of the county’s law enforcement division, mind you) is notorious for other stunts like this, serving rotten food to inmates and forcing inmates to wear pink boxer shorts and sleep on pink bed sheets. In fact, Sheriff Arapaio rarely misses a chance to abuse and humiliate inmates nor does he pass up an opportunity to be on television. An NPR report explains his motives:

The one thing you need to know about Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is that he craves publicity. He’s regularly on local TV news, cable talk shows, even international programs. . . “He knew how to play the media,” says Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney for Arizona. “He knew what policies that he could implement would draw media attention — not only in the state, I don’t think in the country, but internationally. But he was at the same time, an individual — when I was in the U.S. attorney’s office — who understood what it meant to be a good law enforcement officer.”

Charlton says that changed in late 2006 after a new conservative county prosecutor was elected and Arpaio’s focus shifted to illegal immigration.

“I think Joe Arpaio lost his perspective. He lost his way and began to become more concerned with pursuing his political enemies than he did with doing what’s right, than with doing justice,” he says.”

Sheriff Arpaio’s antics raise a much larger question with significant ethical implications. While the role of the sheriff varies from county to county, the sheriff is usually the highest law enforcement officer in a county, and in most cases, is an elected official. This gives sheriffs like Arapio a strong incentive to put popularity over justice. This set-up of electing the sheriff also provides the opportunity for the abuse of power, as seems to be the case with Arpaio, “targeting elected officials and judges who publicly disagreed with his policies” and granting unethical “favors” to political supporters.

The primary responsibility of a sheriff is to oversee law enforcement in his county. The sheriff ought to be the person with the most qualifications (or at least high qualifications) and a significant background of law enforcement experience. By subjecting the sheriff to the political process, we put popularity, or worse, political party, above justice. Sheriff Arpaio rightfully has his critics, but he has historically been wildly popular with voters (he’s been sheriff for almost twenty years), as he himself notes in this BBC report.

“The majority of people like what I’m doing, that’s why I get re-elected. I serve the people, I don’t work for any Congressman, bureaucrat, or government! I’m an elected sheriff so nothing’s going to change.”

But voters, especially in counties like Maricopa County where racial tensions run high, may not be in the position to elect a law enforcement leader interested most in justice. Nor are voters in other counties. Voters are more likely to choose a sheriff based on his political party or popularity rather than his character. This is a problem. Try doing a quick internet search on county sheriffs who put their political agenda over their law enforcement duties.

There are many places where the sheriff’s law enforcement responsibilities are minimal, places like my former home of Massachusetts. But in many, many states, the sheriff provides all law enforcement functions, and may even serve as coroner (another elected position which places popularity over qualifications. Check out this disturbing NPR report on the deplorable state of far too many coroners’ offices). Now, many sheriffs, perhaps most, are fine, honorable individuals with admirable characters and in writing this post, I in no way mean to criticize any member of the office outside of Sheriff Arpaio, who I think rightly deserves criticism. But I do think that Arpaio affords us the opportunity to examine a system in need of reform if we want the criminal justice system to become just.