San Francisco DA George Gascón repeatedly clashed with Maricopa County, Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio when he headed the Mesa, AZ police department. In the wake of the controversial Trump pardon, he calls on prosecutors and law enforcement officials around the country to “stand together” in defense of the Constitution.
Living Under Joe Arpaio’s ‘Reign of Terror’
As the debate over last Friday’s presidential pardon of Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, AZ continues to roil the nation, WitnessLA turned for comment to a law enforcement figure who frequently found himself at war with the self-styled “toughest sheriff” in America.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who served as chief of the Mesa, AZ police department between 2006-2009, possesses a trove of hard-won personal knowledge about how Arpaio works—perhaps more than nearly any other law enforcement figure in the nation. A 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, Gascón rose to become second in command of the LAPD under Bill Bratton, overseeing 8,000 patrol officers, before he became the chief cop in Mesa, a city more populous than Atlanta, Kansas City or Miami. Although it’s been nearly ten years since Gascón, who fled Castro’s Cuba with his family at the age of 13, clashed with ‘Sheriff Joe,’ his memories and observations represent a vivid reminder of the activities that led to Arpaio’s conviction.
In a conversation with WitnessLA editor, Celeste Fremon, Gascón spells out the constitutional violations that he says were committed by the sheriff “almost on a daily basis,” discusses what it was like to work under Arpaio’s “reign of terror,” and suggests how prosecutors and law enforcement should respond to President Trump’s “mockery of the rule of law.”
WitnessLA: What was your reaction when you first heard on Friday night that the president had gone ahead and pardoned former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio?
George Gascón: Well you know it was incredibly emotional for me because I lived around the reign of terror of Joe Arpaio for three years. I saw firsthand the number constitutional violations that were being committed by Joe almost on a daily basis.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Constitution
Gascón: I remember that I was asked to give sworn testimony at a Congressional hearing in 2009 about the 287-G program, the precursor to Secure Communities, which is the program where local law enforcement is deputized to do immigration work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Arpaio had one of the largest group of such officers anywhere in the nation, and they were absolutely trampling over people’s rights.
WLA: Give us an example of the kind of “trampling” you’re talking about.
Gascón: For instance—and this was very common—you would have Joe’s deputies out in the early morning when construction workers, farm workers and gardeners are headed to work. Pickup trucks would be out on nearly every road in the county, and there would be some brown-looking people in the truck. The officers would spot a truck like that and make a traffic stop, or a “pretext” stop, and then ask everybody for their for their papers. Those individuals who couldn’t show identification proving to the satisfaction of the deputies that they were here legally, would be arrested and taken to jail.
They’d arrest people who were green card holders, and many times they’d arrest U.S. citizens, and would hold them for hours. When I was providing testimony for Congress, a 19-year old Latino man (joined) me. He was a citizen, born in Phoenix, but he was still detained for 18 or 20 hours in one of those sweeps, before he could prove that he was U.S. born.
Another common strategy was for Arpaio’s people to go in the morning to the K -12 schools in a community, especially the elementary and middle schools where kids were more likely to be driven to school by their parents.
The deputies would make traffic stops with anybody who looked Latino. This caused the community parents to become so terrified, that kids were not being taken to school. I had parents coming to me for help, asking, “How do I get my kids to school?”
WLA: Why was it an abuse of rights for Arpaio’s deputies to stop one of those farm worker crew trucks, or those parents?
Gascón: You cannot simply target people on the basis of race, or the color of their skin, to do police work. You can use color or race when you are looking for a pre-identified suspect, and you see someone who meets that description. But you cannot simply say, for instance, I’m going to stop all green people because some green people may be committing crimes.
So, what the Maricopa County sheriff was doing is basically saying, OK we know that most undocumented immigrants in Maricopa County are going to be of Latino origin. A lot of Latinos are brown-skinned people. So if we start making traffic stops of people who look like this, we are going to have a high degree of probability that eventually we’re going to find some people that are here without documents.
Then Joe’s people would do sweeps where they’d look for people who matched the stereotypical look of immigrant workers of Latino descent, and they would stop them— sometimes for a valid traffic violation (or) sometimes they would just fabricate the cause. In either instance, the deputies would question the people they stopped about their legal status. If the deputies thought the answers weren’t satisfactory, those folks would be arrested and ICE would be notified.
The problem is, first of all, the predicate way of going after people just based on their apparent national origin and racial characteristics is unconstitutional.
Second, because often Joe’s deputies had so little to go on, they were actually arresting and holding people for hours in lock-up facilities when the people they arrested had a legal right to be in this country or, in some cases, they were born here. All that is a violation of our constitutional right to due process under the Fourth and the 14th Amendment.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Supreme Court ruled a century ago, and again in 2011, that whether people have immigration documents or not, they are still afforded the same protections as citizens.
Staring Down Sheriff Joe
WLA: At some point Arpaio appeared to go to war with you personally. Tell us about that.
Gascón: My opposition to his work became very public, with a lot of media coverage. Because of this, there was a time where Joe decided to get some questionable warrants to search several Mesa city government facilities, including the public library, the main city administration building, and a police facility.
So early one morning , I get a call from our dispatcher saying, “Hey, there’s a large number of men dressed in what appears to be tactical gear mustering at a local park.”
We were a little concerned because we’d had a couple of issues recently where the cartels came in to do hits on their adversaries, and they’d have people dressed in police tactical gear. So we weren’t sure what we were dealing with, because no one had notified us that this operation of Sheriff Arpaio’s was going down. So our officers were very concerned about who this group might be.
I told them to have a supervisor approach the group very peacefully and try to identify them. When my people went, they immediately determined that they were Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies, with dogs, and a bunch of extra (individuals) who Joe’s people said they were just doing a training exercise.
Typically, as you probably know, when one agency is going to do a tactical operation in another agency’s jurisdiction they notify them. But they not only didn’t notify us; when we saw them, they lied to us, which is unheard of between law enforcement agencies. We decided we were just going to monitor them quietly from afar, which is what we did. But then the next thing we knew, we had groups of deputies storming the main city administration building.
What we learned later, is that they were looking for undocumented workers on the janitorial staff. Then they stormed through the city library. I believe there were 20 women on the cleaning crew. And three did not have the ability to show they were here lawfully, and they were arrested.
A side story to this is that one of those women arrested had young kids at home who were left alone in their house for over a day until people figured out the mom wasn’t there, and there were no adults in the house.
Then later that morning, the group also hit a police facility where the Mesa Police Department kept all the credentials for all the city’s workers. And [Arpaio’s deputies] went in and took the hard drives of the computers that had all this information.
The whole idea behind this whole thing was that I, as the Chief of Police, was facilitating the credentialing of undocumented workers to work for the city, which wasn’t the case. It all fell apart. But this is kind of the thing he did.
Immigration and Public Safety
WLA: Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck and other law enforcement officials have repeatedly stated that having local cops help ICE is not in the best interests of public safety. Please explain why you believe that is true.
Gascón: Let me give you two concrete examples. One happened when I first became chief of police in Mesa. A person came to me and said, “We have a young woman we know who was brutally assaulted and raped. She is from Guatemala and is undocumented. And she is afraid to go to the hospital to get medical treatment because that might lead to people reporting her to the federal government.
She also refused to report the crime to the police because she was afraid of being deported.
So you had a woman who had been brutally raped, needed medical assistance, and really needed to have law enforcement investigate the case, but who didn’t want to do any of those things because of her immigration status. We were finally able to get her the medical assistance she needed. But she was never willing to make a police report. This didn’t happen in Mesa, but happened in another jurisdiction nearby in Maricopa County.
We came to find out later that the person who sexually assaulted her had likely been involved in other previous sexual assaults and eventually assaulted and raped another woman. So this is an example of why you don’t want community members to be afraid to report a crime. When that happens, the criminal elements in the community believe they can act with impunity because certain victims, and certain witnesses, are not going to report them.
WLA: What other examples should we know about?
Gascón: When I came to Mesa, the city was having problems with violent crime, and with property crime. During my tenure there, we were able to reduce both kinds of crime substantially. But, during that same time, in the unincorporated area of Maricopa County, meaning the areas that were not policed by a local police force, but were policed by Joe Arpaio’s sheriff’s department, crime consistently went up. And many of those unincorporated areas actually bordered our city.
When we looked at it, [we found that] the reason why crime was going up there just across the city line while, in similar communities, crime was going down, was because, number one, we began to develop a relationship with our community members, who were then willing to come and report crime and work with us.
And number two, we were able to dedicate our resources to deal with what local law enforcement is trained and chartered to do, which is to deal with local crimes. Whereas in the case of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department, people were afraid to report crimes, because they did not know if they, or a neighbor, could be deported as a result. And also, crime enforcement suffered because a lot of Joe’s resources were being taken away from the primary function of law enforcement, and were put instead toward immigration enforcement.
There was one town that was policed on contract by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. When that town later decided to create its own police department, they found out that there were hundreds of sexual assault cases that had gone uninvestigated because the sheriffs didn’t have the resources to both.
WLA: I read something about that in prepping for this interview. I think there were 400 uninvestigated sexual assault cases, 32 cases involved children, one involved a two-year-old child.
Gascón: t’s been a while, but that sounds about right. Those are the reasons why you as citizen should be very worried about having your local police engaging in doing immigration enforcement work. It can harm public safety. And, at the end of the day, this is where I think there is such a lack of moral authority in the decision that the president made to pardon Joe Arpaio.
The president often talks about the rule of law. Well, if you’re such a guardian of the rule of law, how do you square a pardon for this guy who has been violating the rule of law on a regular basis—massively?
The Road to Criminal Contempt
WLA: Let’s talk about the court order that Arpaio defied that led to the president’s pardon. We know that the ACLU filed a federal class action lawsuit against Arpaio in 2007, alleging that he and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office engaged in racial profiling and unlawful traffic stops of Latinos. Four years later, the lawsuit went to trial. What came next?
Gascón: In 2011, after the federal jury found Maricopa County and Joe guilty, Joe was ordered by the court to stop those illegal practices. But this was right around election time, and for the first time he was challenged by someone who might have a chance of beating him. But Joe also knew that, for him, in Maricopa County immigration had always been a winning issue. So he decided to continue those illegal patrols, even though he had been ordered by a federal judge not to do it.
WLA: So then, five years later, in May 2016, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow handed down a 162-page ruling finding Arpaio guilty of civil contempt of court. When Joe still didn’t stop, Snow referred Arpaio and three of his aides to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, requesting that they be prosecuted for criminal contempt of court. He was convicted in July 2017.
Gascón: By the way, Judge Snow, who found him in contempt of court, is a very conservative Republican judge. So you can’t make the argument that this was some bleeding-heart liberal judge appointed by Obama. That is just not the case. [George W. Bush appointed Snow.] He is a very conservative jurist, but someone who believes in the rule of law.
What President Trump has done here is a complete mockery of the rule of law. He provided a pardon for a law enforcement official who consistently violated the Constitution, who was found to have violated the Constitution with racial profiling by a federal civil trial process. And after he was ordered by a judge to stop this unconstitutional behavior, he continued to violate the constitution anyway.
And how do you square the fact that Maricopa County has paid millions and millions of dollars in lawsuits for all his wrongful actions? That money should be going to public safety, not to attorneys for plaintiffs whose rights were violated.
WLA: So what are next steps for law enforcement, and for others who disagree with these actions?
Gascón: Well, there are a lot of lessons here, just as there are a lot of lessons in what happened in Charlottesville, because many of these recent events are intertwined. One main lesson is that we cannot look the other way. We have to speak up. We have to make it clear that we’re not going to allow our nation to be overtaken by hate and by a complete disregard for the values that we hold dear.
As for what’s next, whether you’re a law enforcement officer or you’re a gardener, we all have to stand together, because our shared values of tolerance and inclusion are the ultimate defense to hatred and xenophobia—whether we’re black or brown or white or Jewish, or any other group, it doesn’t really matter. There are some things that are immoral about what is happening in our nation and we have to speak up and we have to confront it with lawful means, but we have to be clear about it.
WLA: Is there a specific place for prosecutors in the kind of actions you just talked about?
Gascón: I think we all play an important role. I find this [alt-right] white supremacy, or white nationalism, or whatever you want to call it, to be extremely disturbing, and shameful. But as the district attorney of San Francisco County, our office is going to prosecute anybody, regardless of what side of the political spectrum you come from, if you commit a violent crime at a demonstration. So as much as I disagree with those people, they will have the protection of the San Francisco DA’s office as individuals to exercise their freedom of expression.
That protection is precisely what makes us different from some other countries in the world. And this is the difference, quite frankly, between us and the current administration. We know what the rule of law is, and we’re prepared to uphold the rule of law—for everyone. We will not look the other way.
POST SCRIPT: On Monday, August 28, the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators (NHCSL), which represents the interests of over 400 state legislators from both parties in state legislatures across the country, issued a strongly-worded statement condemning the presidential pardon of Joe Arpaio. It reads in part:
“Pardoning former Maricopa County Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, undermines the rule of law and sends the wrong message to law enforcement officers who should enforce the law and not racially profile law-abiding taxpayers….This pardon is also an affront to the judiciary and the separation of powers because it sends the message that unconstitutional acts and disrespect for court orders can go on without fear of punishment. NHCSL condemns this pardon and urges President Trump to reconsider his actions and rhetoric on the sensitive issue of racially motivated violence, profiling, and persecution.”
WitnessLA is pleased to co-publish this story with The Crime Report.
Photo of Joe Arpaio by Gage Skidmore, Flickr, 2011. Photo of George Gascón courtesy of @GeorgeGascon. Photo of Sheriff Joe billboard from @RealSheriffJoe.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.