The Thin Blue Line

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Maricopa County (AZ) sheriff Joe Arpaio has done it again.

If you’re familiar with the sheriff’s methods, that “it” has you uneasy even before you click the link. What did he do this time? Is the “it” an old favorite, such as forcing an illegal immigrant to give birth while shackled, hunting illegals in the desert from behind the turret of a .50-caliber machine gun, or defending his prison guards after their fatal battering of a mentally retarded man accused of misdemeanor loitering? Or is this “it” a newly-devised offense against both Constitution and decency?

Unfortunately for everyone under his jurisdiction, it’s the latter. In late March Sheriff Joe mobilized his tank, his armored troop carriers, his SWAT platoon, and his bomb-defusing robot, in order to serve a warrant on Jesus Llovera, a man with no felony convictions and no history of owning or even displaying any weapons. Llovera’s alleged crime? Breeding birds for cockfighting.

Now, Llovera does have one prior on his record: a misdemeanor for attending a cockfight. And he did have 115 of the birds on his property (all of which, rather needlessly, were put to sleep during the raid) that were more than likely intended for similarly cruel spectacles. So this is a bit more focused than when Arpaio raids retail stores on the off chance that some of their employees lack visas. But even with probable cause and a legally obtained warrant to serve, what could possibly justify such an ostentatious show of force?

For Arpaio, the answer is always simple — and certainly has nothing to do with any book of local, state, or federal law. No, what Sheriff Joe craves is the spotlight, and he will do anything — any “it” — to get himself in front of the cameras. In this case, the “it” he did was to organize this whole raid in order that C-list celebrity Steven Seagal could ride along and look tough in a tank for his reality show Lawman.

Remember: SWAT teams were originally instituted to deal with extreme threats to the public safety, such as the ex-Marine Charles Whitman, who barricaded himself in the University of Texas clock tower and rained bullets onto the crowd below. Now we have entire departments going out in full riot gear to arrest a single unarmed man and euthanize his chickens.

Whether that makes for gripping TV drama is a question I leave to Seagal’s dwindling audience to decide. I am sure, however, that it doesn’t make for good policing — and just as sure that Arpaio doesn’t give a damn.

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