Saturday, December 17, 2011

Dueling Press Conferences

Photos © The Arizona Republic

A lot of news was made Thursday. Unfortunately for photographers, most of it was delivered in dueling press conferences. My morning started at the US Department of Justice offices in Phoenix where Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, (top photo) delivered a scathing report on civil rights violations committed by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department during their "crime suppression" sweeps when deputies blanket a neighborhood and pull over anyone they think might be an undocumented immigrant, and in the county jails, where DoJ officials allege Spanish speaking inmates were not afforded their constitutionally protected rights. 

The day ended at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Offices across the street from the DoJ, where Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his lawyers strongly refuted the DoJ claims. (On the right in the bottom photo, with Lisa Allen his spokesperson) Arpaio claims the Justice Department's report is politically motivated by Democrats and liberals in Washington DC and retaliation against him because he's investigating whether or not President Obama is a US citizen. His claim is that if the President is not a US citizen he may have committed fraud by duping Arizona voters into voting for him. Arpaio's claim of a political attack overlook the fact that the investigation into his department was started during the Bush administration and his investigation of the President started just a few months ago, just before the DoJ investigation was concluded. If anything, Arpaio's investigation was intended to blunt the DoJ investigation, not the other way around. 

I've been photographing Sheriff Arpaio and the jails for more than 10 years. It's always kind of a surreal experience. 

When I started in Phoenix, it was incredibly easy to get access to the jails. It was as simple as calling the Sheriff's PIO (Public Information Officer) and asking to get into the jail to make pictures. I've been in the jails photographing chain gangs, English classes for Spanish speaking prisoners, Christmas mass, celebrity tours (like Shaquille O'Neal), women prisoners reading to their children and weather stories (when it's 110 on the streets of Phoenix, it's about 120 in the tents at Tent City). I've accompanied his deputies on "ride alongs" during immigration sweeps in Phoenix, Gila Bend and Guadalupe. During the Cave Creek Complex Fire, a massive 2005 wild fire north of Phoenix, the Sheriff had his deputies conduct media tours of the fire line when the Forest Service refused to give us access to the fire. The Sheriff said he was the ranking law enforcement officer in Maricopa County and no federal official would tell him or his deputies or their guests where they could go in Maricopa County. 

The truth is that I wish all law enforcement and government agencies were as easy to work with. I've never met a public figure with a better understanding of the value of media coverage

During a Herman Cain stop in the Sheriff's office (before Cain was beset with allegations of sexual harassment but after he suggested electrifying the border fence), Cain was being grilled about his "joke" on the border fence and the Sheriff jumped in and asked the reporters why he wasn't being questioned about immigration. The Sheriff loves the limelight and doesn't like to share it. 

To Sheriff Joe, there's truly no such thing as "bad press." 

When a reporter writes something critical of the Sheriff, he uses it in his fund raising to show how the liberal media is ganging up on him. When a reporter writes something positive about the Sheriff he uses it to show how even the media (read: liberals) like him. He can rattle off the history of his media appearances the same way a NFL quarterback can recite his statistics. 

But in 10 years of photographing the Sheriff, I've never seen him as angry was he was during Thursday's press conference. He flatly denied any wrong doing by his department and said that if there were instances of racial profiling they were isolated instances and correctable through training and discipline. He waved the DoJ press release around while expressing outrage at both the report's conclusions and the lack of notice about the release of the report (MCSO got the report just a couple of hours before the media did). 

In a one on one setting, the Sheriff is a very amiable guy. He likes to joke with reporters and photographers. But there was no joking around on Thursday.

I have more photos of the Sheriff and the jails in my archive and some of the photos available from ZUMA Press