Joe Arpaio’s Longtime Deputy Could Become the Next Sheriff of Maricopa County

Jerry Sheridan, who beat Arpaio in the Republican primary, has been complicit in many of the former sheriff’s worst misdeeds.

Jerry Iannelli   |    September 17, 2020

Jerry Sheridan in a still from an ad released by his campaign. (Jerry Sheridan for Sheriff 2020 / YouTube)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Jerry Sheridan, who beat Arpaio in the Republican primary in one of the nation’s biggest counties, has been complicit in many of the former sheriff’s worst misdeeds.

Jerry Sheridan, the Republican nominee for sheriff in Maricopa County (Phoenix), doesn’t seem entirely excited to talk about his old boss.

In a campaign video released last November, Sheridan, noted that, in the 38 years he worked as a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy, he served “under four sheriffs” before he finally retired “as chief deputy” in 2016. Those are, technically, true statements. Someone without a working knowledge of Phoenix area politics might be forgiven for thinking that Sheridan seems like an experienced cop who knows how to run a big-city police department.

“I know what I’m doing,” Sheridan, a 62-year-old who keeps his white hair in a meticulously groomed military flat-top, states in the video as sepia-toned photos from his long career in law enforcement float across the screen.

But in the clip, Sheridan  doesn’t name the sheriffs he has worked under. Nor does he mention whose chief deputy he was—or why he retired four years ago. Addressing those points would force Sheridan to acknowledge an elephant in the room: For the last six years of his career, he served as the right-hand man to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the former top cop in Maricopa County who lost his 2016 re-election bid after he was held in criminal contempt of court for refusing to stop racially profiling Black and Latinx Phoenix residents. Sheridan, too, was held in civil contempt of court as part of the same racial-profiling incident; he retired in disgrace amid the scandal.

But Sheridan portrayed himself as a moderate candidate and won his August primary. That was only because he had been running against the 88-year-old Arpaio himself—who managed to avoid jail time for his criminal contempt charges because President Trump pardoned him in August 2017. Arpaio then ran for U.S. Senate, got battered in the primary, and decided to run for his old job overseeing the 3,000 employee sheriff’s department in America’s fourth most populous county. Sheridan beat his former boss by about 6,000 votes last month and will now face incumbent Sheriff Paul Penzone, a Democrat, in November. 

Penzone, a former Phoenix police sergeant who beat Arpaio in 2016, isn’t considered a progressive candidate. He has allowed ICE to continue working with the sheriff’s office, and he received heaps of scorn after his agency arrested Máxima Guerrero, a DACA recipient and immigrant-rights activist, during a Black Lives Matter protest in May. 

But Penzone has at least curtailed some of Arpaio’s worst abuses. He closed the Tent City outdoor jail, which Arpaio himself once called a “concentration camp.” Penzone’s office has also audited and temporarily shut down Arpaio’s armed civilian “posses,” which critics said had been unregulated and rife with abuse. Penzone also stopped dressing incarcerated people in pink underwear and forcing prisoners to work in chain gangs, legacies of the Tent City jail.

Sheridan has promised if elected to bring back Arpaio’s  “posses,” ramp up drug raids, and reopen the Tent City jail that Amnesty International once called inhumane. 

And longtime critics of Arpaio and his associates warn that, since Sheridan isn’t a household name like Arpaio, voters could bring the former sheriff’s ways back to Phoenix this November. 

When asked about the use of Tent City and sheriff’s posses, Sheridan told The Appeal: Political Report via email that, although there is no hard data to prove that either program benefited public safety or public resources, “anecdotal evidence from the inmates and former inmates” show that the jail’s harsh conditions “did make an impact.” An Arizona State University study that Arpaio himself commissioned in 1998 found that Arpaio’s jail policies did not deter crime any better than those of the typical police department.

Sheridan also called sheriff’s posses a “force multiplier” that had existed in Maricopa County for most of the office’s 150-year existence “until Penzone almost single handedly dismantled it.” In fact, Penzone temporarily suspended the posses after an audit  found that more than 50 sheriff’s office guns issued to posse members had gone missing under Arpaio’s watch.

Caroline Isaacs, the Arizona program director for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker immigrant rights and anti-mass incarceration activist organization, called the use of Tent City and sheriff’s posses deadly and “vacuous stunts.”

“Anyone who stayed in a department run by Arpaio for that many years and then rose through the ranks to a position of power just underneath a man who has been convicted of abusing the rights of people in the county has absolutely no business in public office,” she told the Political Report.

For a brief period in 2016, it appeared that Arpaio was finally being held accountable for his practices. That year, federal prosecutors charged him with criminal contempt of court, a misdemeanor that could have sent the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff” in the country to jail for six months. At that time, Hillary Clinton handily led Donald Trump in presidential polls and seemed all but assured a landslide victory. Some of Arpaio’s critics expressed absolute glee that the county’s former top cop might soon wind up on the opposite side of prison bars.

Of course, none of those things occurred. Trump won and pardoned Arpaio, so he never served a day in prison.

The pardon, however, sparked a Twitter thread from the Phoenix New Times alternative weekly newspaper outlining a list of Arpaio’s misdeeds as sheriff. They included running the Tent City jail in the summer Arizona heat  where prisoners died at a staggering rate; marching Latinx prisoners into a section of jail surrounded by an electric fence; staging an assassination attempt against himself; sending one of his employees to Hawaii to “investigate” President Barack Obama’s birth certificate; failing to investigate scores of sexual abuse claims in Phoenix; overseeing a botched SWAT raid in which deputies set a puppy on fire; teaming up with Steven Seagal and using a tank to arrest  a cockfighting suspect; arresting the then-co-owners of the Phoenix New Times for reporting critically on him; racially profiling Latinx people; and hiring a private investigator to dig up dirt on the judge who initially ordered his office to stop racial profiling. 

While public outrage has rightfully focused on Arpaio, Sheridan and other members of the sheriff’s office command staff were certainly complicit in his wrongdoing. Sheridan has held top administrative jobs under Arpaio since the 1990s, when Arpaio promoted Sheridan to chief of patrol. Sheridan then served as chief of custody over Arpaio’s jail system for 12 years, and finally as chief deputy in 2010. Throughout, Sheridan has marched in lockstep with Arpaio’s anti-immigrant agenda.

Take the contempt of court case: In 2011, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU, ordering Arpaio’s office to stop immigration sweeps that targeted Latinx drivers on the presumption that they were in the U.S. illegally.  

Separately, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under Obama in 2009 had opened an investigation into the sheriff’s office’s pattern of racially profiling Latinx drivers. Arpaio refused to cooperate with investigators, and the DOJ ultimately sued the office in 2012. In 2015, a federal judge ruled in the DOJ’s favor, and in July 2015, Arpaio reached a partial settlement with the government, agreeing to establish protocol for his immigration sweeps. The following month, the DOJ also started monitoring Arpaio’s compliance with the ACLU’s suit.

But Arpaio simply decided the law didn’t apply to him. He loudly boasted in the press that he believed his immigration sweeps were legal and that he would continue running them. So in 2016, federal prosecutors charged Arpaio with criminal contempt of court. He was convicted in July 2017 but pardoned a month later.

Sheridan, too, was initially found in civil contempt. A federal judge also recommended he be charged with criminal contempt alongside Arpaio, but the federal government ultimately dropped that case due to the statute of limitations.

Sheridan to this day says he was never made aware of the 2011 preliminary injunction barring his office from conducting immigration raids. But in 2019, outside investigators found that Sheridan had lied when he told a federal court monitor he had no idea that the injunction was issued. Investigators found that Sheridan had been sent emails from Arpaio’s lawyer about the injunction and had sat in on a meeting about it with Arpaio’s aides. The Arizona Republic also ran two front-page stories about the ruling. But Sheridan says he never opened the emails and doesn’t remember reading the articles or attending that meeting at all.

Sheridan has tried at times to distance himself from his former boss. In an August interview with the local TV outlet Arizona’s Family, Sheridan said that he doesn’t want to be as outlandish as Arpaio was.

“I’m very uncomfortable in front of the camera,” Sheridan told the news outlet. “He loved and lived for the media attention. I’m not a grandstander. He did a lot of things for media attention. I will do things for the betterment of the citizens of Maricopa County, and good law enforcement practices.”

But Sheridan’s concept of “good law enforcement practices” doesn’t veer far from Arpaio’s. When the Arizona Mirror last month asked Sheridan about Arpaio’s contempt of court case, Sheridan stated that the judge in the case “got it wrong” and that the sheriff’s office’s racial profiling “just wasn’t as systemic as the media and ACLU made it out to be.” This then led Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini to state outright in an Aug. 31 column that “Jerry Sheridan IS Joe Arpaio.”

In addition to pushing a policy platform nearly identical to Arpaio’s, it seems Sheridan wants to bring much of his former boss’s ostentatious behavior back to the sheriff’s office. In one campaign clip, he filmed himself firing what appears to be a fully automatic machine gun while promising to “protect your right to keep and bear arms.” In another clip, Sheridan denounces “violence and anarchy” in contemporary America’s streets before promising that he’ll “enforce the law” and keep Phoenix-area residents safe.

And, in a move that could have been ripped directly from the Arpaio years, Sheridan at the end of August spoke at a virtual meeting of an Arizona State University student organization that was raising funds to help support Kyle Rittenhouse, the white, 17-year-old Trump supporter charged with killing two Black Lives Matter protesters and nonfatally shooting a third in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month. Sheridan later told the Arizona Republic that, although he committed to speak before the shooting occurred, he was “neutral” about the group’s efforts to support the accused murderer.

Luke Black, the program manager for AZPoder, the political arm of the Phoenix-based Poder in Action civil rights group, told the Political Report that Sheridan seems to be dangling these policy proposals in order to get support from Arpaio’s far-right base of “white supremacists, Trump supporters, and people who believe folks of color have gone too far during the latest uprising.”

“Tent City was always a symbol Arpaio used to illustrate that he was tough on crime, that he was willing to publicly shame and humble anybody that came through the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, but there is no real evidence that Tent City deterred crime or that it deterred DUIs,” Black said. 

Despite rolling back some of Arpaio and Sheridan’s worst policies, Penzone has not been popular with reformers like Black since he took office in 2017.   Last month, activists roundly criticized Penzone for continuing to allow ICE agents to seize people at jail facilities.  And separately last month, the Associated Press reported that Penzone’s office had an 1,800-case Internal Affairs backlog.

“Penzone’s largest disappointment is the betrayal of the Latino community,” Black said. “Latinos all over Maricopa County, undocumented youth, DACA youth—they helped run Penzone’s campaign.” Since 2016, Black said, Penzone has seemingly had “no remorse” in continuing to cooperate with ICE. Black added that activists will need to keep pushing whoever wins the election to make changes.

Penzone has also come under fire for mishandling the COVID-19 crisis. In November 2019, a federal judge scolded Penzone for not fully complying with requirements from the ACLU suit. In June, the ACLU sued Penzone after COVID-19 spiked in his jails. Sheridan, in his email to the Political Report, blasted Penzone for the jail system’s high COVID-19 caseload and five employee deaths related to the disease. “Covid-19 is running rampant in the jails. Quarantine protocols for contagious disease were never properly implemented from the start and still are not,” he wrote. But he also criticized the incumbent for making fewer drug confiscations and DUI arrests that would further crowd the jails .

It seems Penzone’s main calling card is still simply his lack of ties to Joe Arpaio. But although Penzone may have been a disappointment, Isaacs, Arizona’s American Friends Service Committee director, told the Political Report that she worries about the culture Sheridan could bring back to the sheriff’s office.

“These policies—Tent City, posses, further prosecuting and criminalizing drug abuse—do nothing to make us safe,” she said. “They get idiots elected.”