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Commentary: A sheriff who is off the rails

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SAN DIEGO -- Joe Arpaio, who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff," has gone rogue. Consumed by ego, accused of racial profiling, and running roughshod over the federal government, this incurable media hound is flirting with another title: "outlaw."

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The Obama administration recently reined in Arpaio over his alleged abuse of a controversial program that allows more local law enforcement agencies to be trained to enforce immigration law as long as they stay within certain boundaries.

That's not Arpaio's strong suit. This authority figure has trouble with authority. Consider all the corners that the Maricopa County, Ariz., sheriff is alleged to have cut in trying to round up illegal immigrants, such as swarming through Hispanic neighborhoods in Phoenix.

Or consider that Arpaio shoots off his mouth more often than he does his service revolver. As when he told a reporter working on a profile for the current issue of GQ: "All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There's no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don't check people? No one talks about that! They're all dirty."

Frankly, I'm surprised it took this long for Arpaio to go off the rails. I've known him since I worked for The Arizona Republic in the late 1990s. Back then, Sheriff Joe -- while still lusting for newspaper ink and television time -- stayed away from the immigration issue. Like most sheriffs and police chiefs, he thought the federal government shouldn't pawn its responsibilities off on local law enforcement.

But that was before he discovered that nativists vote. After that, he changed course and began pandering to the lowest common denominator as if he were Lou Dobbs with a badge. He sees himself as a one-man task force charged with stopping an invasion of dishwashers, landscapers and nannies, many of whom work for the same folks who voted for him.

Arpaio went from cop to cartoon years ago. After all, the courts have spent the last 40 years explaining, in case after case, what constitutes "probable cause" to stop, question or search someone. And relying on a person's skin color, where he lives and whether or not he speaks English with an accent just doesn't cut it. Law enforcement officers across the country have to adhere to these standards. But Arpaio thinks the rules don't apply to him.

Even though allegations of racial profiling by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department have prompted a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Arpaio sought a renewed agreement with the Department of Homeland Security to continue to carry out arrests in the field and perform immigration checks in his jails. But, according to Arpaio, Homeland Security only approved the jail checks.

Sheriff Joe is not going to let a little thing like the rule of law get in the way of his latest stab at self-aggrandizement. He vows to press ahead, using state laws against smuggling to continue to apprehend illegal immigrants. And if federal authorities won't take custody of his prisoners, he said, he'll drive them to the U.S.-Mexico border himself.

"I got news for all of these critics, all of these politicians," Arpaio said at a news conference recently. "I'm going to continue to do everything I've been doing -- nothing changes."

These politicians? Oh, please. Arpaio is all about politics. And it's no wonder why. According to polls, many Republicans in Arizona think Arpaio belongs in the statehouse. It obviously went to his head.

They almost got it right. If Arpaio exceeds his authority and breaks the law by dabbling in racial profiling, then he belongs in the big house.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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