I thought about that while reading William Finnegan’s profile of Joe Arpaio in the New Yorker last week. Arpaio is the longtime sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona and has received (and actively sought) a lot of national attention for his harsh approach toward illegal immigration. Among the most controversial are the sheriff’s high-profile “crime-suppression sweeps,” like the Finnegan one described in the article. Deputies in paddy wagons, on horseback and a helicopter descended upon a largely Latino town — with news crews in tow — and demanded I.D. from “basically every-dark skinned person they saw,” he writes. This exercise was carried out even though it was known that only a handful of people in the town weren’t born in the U.S., and despite protests from the town’s mayor. Arpaio says his department has investigated and detained over 30,000 undocumented aliens in the county, and in his zeal to arrest “illegals,” as he calls them, he has been unique in broadly interpreting a state law on human smuggling, so that not only are the smugglers charged, but the undocumented immigrants being smuggled are charged as “co-conspirators.” (This has exacerbated the overcrowding in the county’s jails, which Arpaio has addressed by building tent prisons in the scorching Arizona heat, and Arpaio brags that his inmates work on chain gangs and receive two cold, 30-cent meals a day.)
But once loosed, it has proven extremely difficult to stuff that genie back into its bottle, even when the effectiveness and necessity of these zero-tolerance tactics is questionable. In Finnegan’s piece, some of his deputies grudgingly admit that Arpaio’s methods haven’t done much to stem the flow of undocumented aliens coming through the county. An award-winning series in the Eastern Valley Tribune found that in Maricopa County, the sheriff’s monomaniacal focus on illegal immigration meant eschewing violent crime investigations or timely responses to emergency calls. The number of stop-and-frisks in New York City jumped from 97,296 in 2002 to 508,540 in 2006 even though crime in the city remained near record lows. But backing off or changing course would offer opponents a political opening. So the stated justifications for those measures become elastic and more extreme; “stop and frisk” is necessary to keep crime rates low, “illegals” are now allegedly bring swine flu into the States. And the tactics are stepped up accordingly, until everything is inbounds and justifiable in policing.
The broader this thinking becomes, the easier it becomes to justify broader methods, because the people you’re policing seem to be less and less like you because you deal with them in increasingly circumscribed ways. And the slow, inexorable creep of institutionalization and dehumanization continues unabated.
*There’s plenty of debate about whether the precipitous drop here in crime here New York was because of anything Giuliani did, or because he ran the city as the crack era waned and during the economic boom of the late 90’s. New York City became safer at a time where crime fell dramatically everywhere else in the country, as well.