Increasingly, two of the Valley’s law-enforcement heavyweights have been facing off over the hotly political issue of illegal immigration.
In one corner is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose office created a special squad to arrest people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally.
In the opposite corner is Mesa police Chief George Gascón, who says Arpaio’s special squad actually may be putting the safety of Valley residents and officers in jeopardy by spending valuable resources on small crimes rather than large ones.
The issue reached its highest pitch yet this week after the sheriff’s squad went into Mesa and arrested nine suspected illegal immigrants without letting the city police department know.
In a written statement on Thursday following the arrests, Arpaio took a jab at Gascón, saying if the chief “will not enforce immigration laws,” the sheriff’s office will.
Gascón responded in an interview by saying: “He’s jeopardizing officer safety. He can’t keep his jails open, but yet he can arrest cooks and gardeners.”
Gascón was referring to recent financial woes in the sheriff’s office that caused the county on Wednesday to shut down three buildings often used by local police to book inmates into the county jails. One was in Mesa. Two were in the West Valley.
Closing the facilities means officers on the edges of the Valley now have to drive further — to downtown Phoenix — and wait in long lines to book certain suspects, effectively taking police off the streets, Gascón said.
“They’re not arresting bad people. They’re not responding to community calls. They’re standing around waiting to book people,” he said.
Arpaio shot back, saying the move will have absolutely no affect on the Mesa Police Department because its officers haven’t used the nearest county facility for nearly three months.
“I don’t like my organization criticized by some police chief,” he added.
Mesa police spokesman Detective Steve Berry confirmed late Friday the department has not used the county facility “for quite some time,” though he did not know exactly how long or why.
The debate between the men over how to handle illegal immigration began long before this week, starting in early 2006 while Gascón was still an assistant chief for the Los Angeles Police Department.
At the time, The Washington Post published a story in which Gascón criticized Arpaio’s decision to let deputies arrest suspected illegal immigrants, a job previously done only by federal agents.
Gascón argued that local police agencies will have a difficult time finding witnesses to report everyday crimes if those witnesses fear being deported. It’s a point he still makes today.
During an interview Friday, Arpaio said that was the opening blow. “He had to badmouth me before he even got here,” Arpaio said.
Both say the debate is not personal, but there are indications otherwise.
Gascón points to the sheriff’s role as an elected official. “I’m not running for office,” Gascón said this week. “I don’t need anybody’s votes.”
And Arpaio says that since Gascón came to town, the two have not spoken except through the media. “We called him. He hasn’t even returned the call,” Arpaio said.
For now at least, the debate looks like it will not slow.
Both law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction inside Mesa city limits, and both men claim to have statistics to back up their own policies.
Arpaio’s advice to Gascón late Friday was this: “Just do his job. He’s the chief of police for Mesa. I’ll do my job. I’m the county sheriff.”
Nether man, though, said they knew exactly how to make that relationship work.