The role of county sheriff has historically been one that never got too much attention, until former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio frequently made national headlines for audacious moves and a savviness for grabbing the media by the shirt collar. That savviness turned into a negative as court troubles and huge fines became his undoing.
Those troubles led to Paul Penzone defeating him in 2016; he then easily cruised to re-election in 2020. However, that appears to be it for Penzone’s political career (or at least as it pertains to the Sheriff’s seat), as he recently announced that he will not be seeking a third term.
His two terms were known by the incredible contrast versus his predecessor; Penzone said in his first campaign that he would be known by not being in the headlines constantly, and he fulfilled that vision. His two terms were characterized by a lack of bombast and flair, and instead doing his job in a relatively quiet and generally effective manner.
Some of his more flashy moves were actually a repudiation of the Arpaio administration and a signal that law enforcement would be less about flash. In his first term he did away with pink underwear for inmates and “Tent City”, a couple of the hallmarks of Arpaio and his quest for the media’s ear that were more about attention than function.
In a political climate where Republicans are typically known as being tougher on crime and Democrats leaning towards a more lenient, “restorative justice” approach, Penzone stuck out and was able to achieve success by bucking that trend. Especially in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020 when there was significant pressure from the progressive wing of the party, Penzone didn’t cave to activist pressure, irritating some but gaining a degree of respect from others.
His time in office was not perfect nor without controversy however, primarily shown as an inability to completely step out of Arpaio’s long and looming shadow. He was found to be in contempt of a court order to comply with previous court orders from the last administration. Penzone made the case that his office was spending about as much time on the 2,100 internal investigations as a result of the compliance order as it was on external crimes.
While Arpaio was certainly a savant when it came to getting the media’s attention, society is better served by those who are more committed to doing a good job rather than being a media darling, and definitely better served by those who do not rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in fines that the taxpayer is then on the hook for. To that end, Penzone’s quiet but effective work was just what the doctor ordered for our county, and I hope that his successor takes a similar approach.