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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Tent City II: Imagining San Diego County with Sheriff Jay in charge

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This article was published in this week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat:


At Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s “Tent City,” inmates sleep in Army tents, wear pink underwear, eat 15-cent meals and join chain gangs to pick up trash in Arizona’s desert heat. 

For Jay La Suer, a former state Assembly member from East County who wants to be San Diego County’s next sheriff, the notorious Arizona lawman known alternately as “Sheriff Joe” and “America’s Toughest Sheriff” has been an ally and a mentor. In fact, as part of his own tough-on-crime platform, La Suer has vowed to build a tent jail that’s just as unforgiving. 

“I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t,” he told reporters during a press conference before a fundraiser at Marina Village Conference Center last Friday, where Arpaio headlined with a jocular, 25-minute speech. “We’re going to save taxpayers money. We’re going to incarcerate people at a cheaper cost, which is going to make you safer.”

La Suer, 69, a conservative gun-rights advocate and immigration hardliner who imagines himself as “Sheriff Jay,” is easily the race’s most divisive candidate. Depending on whom was asked at the event—the 200 donors dining on meat and potatoes in the woodsy hall or the four-dozen mostly Latino protestors chanting “Racist sheriff, racist friends, this injustice has to end!” just beyond the parking lot—Sheriff Arpaio’s endorsement is a blessing or a curse. 

La Suer faces stiff competition from the incumbent, Sheriff Bill Gore, a former FBI agent who has the support of much of San Diego’s political establishment, political analysts say. But he will have better chances if he manages to expand his conservative East County base and beats Gore’s main contender, Jim Duffy, a 28-year police veteran toting the endorsement of the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, in the June 2010 primary.

So, what would San Diego look like if Sheriff Jay were to take command of the Sheriff’s Department and emulate Sheriff Joe? We fed Sheriff Joe’s record in Arizona into our virtual crystal ball and took a peek:

A new Tent City

To save taxpayers money and relieve prison overcrowding, Sheriff Jay follows the Arpaio model and pitches a tent city in Otay Mesa. 

Maricopa County paid $1 million to house 500 inmates in Arpaio’s first tent prison, while it costs $80 million to house 5,000 inmates at San Diego’s jail Downtown, La Suer noted at a debate in September, according to East County Magazine. A state-of-the-art stun fence and hydraulic watchtowers bring up the price tag, but housing inmates in canvas tents saves the county as much as $65 million. 

To make the 5,000 inmates in San Diego’s jails regret what they did—even those who are just awaiting trial dates and therefore presumed innocent—Sheriff Jay bans coffee, candy, pornography and transistor radios. But inmates are given the opportunity to compete for McDonald’s and pizza in a grueling reality contest called “Solitary Survivor,” a spin-off of Sheriff Joe’s “Inmate Idle.”

What Sheriff Jay doesn’t realize is that Sheriff Joe has been the subject of more than 2,000 federal lawsuits alleging poor prison conditions, prisoner abuse and wrongful deaths, costing taxpayers $41.3 million in liability claims and insurance costs, according to a 2008 study by the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank based in Phoenix. 

As the years pass, Sheriff Jay is swamped with federal lawsuits alleging poor prison conditions and wrongful deaths, which siphon off the money the tent city saved.

Immigration sweeps

Denouncing San Diego as a “sanctuary county” for undocumented immigrants, Sheriff Jay joins 287(g), a federal program (Sheriff Joe is an enthusiastic participant) that allows local police forces to partner with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. 

Jay initially vows to adhere to the program’s regulations by focusing on major crimes, like human trafficking and drug smuggling. But, instead, he enforces immigration the Arpaio way and launches a series of indiscriminate sweeps that target people who, as observers note, “drive while brown.” 

The effort leads to a few hundred arrests but fails to close down any drug cartels or smuggling operations—as was the case in Maricopa County between 2007 and 2008, when the sweeps brought on a $1.3 million deficit in one three-month period, led to 200 arrests of suspected illegal immigrants and nabbed zero human-trafficking bosses or drug kingpins, according to the Goldwater Institute report. 

The San Diego Minutemen applaud the sweeps and fill the ranks of Jay’s volunteer posse (a citizen-semi-deputization program modeled on Sheriff Joe’s), but police complain that Jay has overstepped jurisdictional bounds, county officials blast him in the national media and civil-rights leaders and Latinos stage mass protests. As they did in Maricopa County, the sweeps lead to a Justice Department investigation into allegations of racial profiling and a class-action lawsuit filed against Jay, the Sheriff’s Department and San Diego County. 

The Obama administration refuses to reinstate 287(g) for San Diego County. But Jay is just as defiant as Arpaio was when Obama reined in his 287(g) powers and promises to keep sweeping. 

More crime, less efficiency

As Sheriff Jay gains international attention, San Diego County sees a dramatic increase in crime as deputies struggle to investigate cases—just as Maricopa County experienced between 2004 and 2007, when the rate of reported violent crimes increased by 69 percent, homicides alone grew by 166 percent, the arrest rate plummeted, thousands of felony warrants went unserved and deputies responded sluggishly to 911 calls, according to the Goldwater report.

To attack the massive problem of unserved warrants, Jay stars in “Book’d,” a reality show based on Sheriff Joe’s “Smile… You’re Under Arrest!” that compels fugitives to participate in elaborate pranks leading to their arrest. 

Unimpressed, The New York Times editorial board votes Sheriff Jay “America’s Second Worst Sheriff,” after Sheriff Joe.

Delusions of grandeur

Seeing enemies everywhere he turns, Sheriff Jay suspects that somebody is out to kill him. Eventually, he comes to believe that CityBeat columnist Edwin Decker has teamed up with the Arellano-Felix cartel to hatch a bizarre assassination plot. 

As Sheriff Joe did to the Phoenix New Times when he was having similar delusions, Jay issues a subpoena to CityBeat, demanding documents related to the reporting, editing and writing of all articles about him, along with e-mails, IP addresses and other sensitive information about the alt-weekly’s readers. When CityBeat responds with an editorial criticizing the subpoena as a “blatant violation of our Constitutional rights,” CityBeat editor David Rolland is arrested.

The FBI investigates whether Sheriff Jay used his powers to intimidate and harass his critics, as it’s now doing with Sheriff Joe.

Adding to Sheriff Jay’s legal troubles, Sheriff Joe sues him for intellectual property theft.  

Photo: Sheriff Jay (left) and Sheriff Joe, by David Rolland

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Written by Peter Holslin

November 11, 2009 at 4:42 pm

One Response

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  1. The fourth candidate for sheriff, Bruce Ruff, wrote a letter to CityBeat this week complaining that he was not mentioned in this article. Read it here: http://sdcitybeat.com/cms/story/detail/this_week_s_feedback/8758/

    Thanks for your note, Bruce.

    Peter Holslin

    December 9, 2009 at 6:57 pm


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