PHOENIX — In Arizona, seeing Joe Arpaio on TV is nothing new. But the self-described "America's toughest sheriff" now has a national platform to pursue lawbreakers that stretches beyond the 5 o'clock news.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which oversees the state's most populous county, has a starring role in "Smile ... You're Under Arrest!," a new reality show debuting Saturday on Fox Reality Channel.
A cross between "Punk'd" and "Cops," the program sets up elaborate sting operations to snare people wanted on outstanding warrants. Actors and undercover deputies play along in faux scenarios where scofflaws are enticed to have a good time; the drama comes when cast members reveal the prank and waiting deputies slap on handcuffs.
Arpaio, who has been accused of being publicity-hungry more than once, says the show is not about fame-seeking, adding that the producers approached him.
"This is just another outside-the-box effort to join forces with the private industry/Hollywood to use certain techniques," Arpaio said. "It's entertainment. But on the other hand, we're able to accomplish a mission and also arrest people out on warrants."
The sheriff is known for overseeing the Tent City Jail, where inmates are housed under surplus military tents. In Maricopa County jails, inmates don old-fashioned prison stripes and work on chain gangs.
But Arpaio has fielded harsher criticism in recent years for how things operate behind the scenes. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has paid millions of dollars in settlements involving dead or injured inmates.
"The reality is the man has lost complete touch with reality," said Michael Manning, a Phoenix attorney who has won settlements for clients against the sheriff's office. "He's spending time on something like this as opposed to getting those felony warrants executed on our streets. ... If it weren't so serious, I'd say it would be funny."
County officials have generally approved of inmates' treatment, and Arpaio said he's just doing his job. His critics, he said, are the ones out of touch and gunning for publicity.
"It's the same little group of people that try to get me defeated. Well, I was just re-elected for the fifth time. The people like what I'm doing," Arpaio said.
Producer Scott Satin, the show's creator whose credits include "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" on the Sci-Fi Channel, said he considered multiple law enforcement agencies before settling on Arpaio's.
"I just think he's quite the character and he's great on camera. Sheriff Joe, he's willing to go out and get these guys and do whatever he takes," Satin said.
For Arpaio, it was hard to see a down side to accepting the free resources. Producers paid for all the materials, Satin said, and it was up to deputies if they wanted to participate off the clock.
The program, which filmed episodes around metropolitan Phoenix last year, sent thousands of mailers from a phony promotional company offering a $300 prize to fugitives they considered low-level _ not involved in violent crimes. Those who responded got invited to a staged event usually littered with tongue-in-cheek behind-bars references.
In one episode, "J.L. Thyme" limo service chauffeurs a wanted man to a Scottsdale nightclub. He is then coaxed into strutting down a catwalk for a new fashion line that also happens to include a black-and-white striped jailbird Halloween costume. Meanwhile, Arpaio is mainly seen watching from a nearby command center.
So far, three half-hour episodes are in the can. Depending on the ratings, the network is open to doing more, Satin said.
Arpaio also credits the mailings for at least 400 arrests due to fugitives still answering them after the show wrapped.
Every arrestee featured on the show must sign a release form giving the network permission to air the footage. So far, nobody hauled away on camera has refused.
"I think they wanted their 15 minutes, even if it was spent in handcuffs," Satin said. "Not one person tried to run or raised their voice. Their attitude was like when your brother plays a trick on you. I can't tell you how many times I heard 'That was a good one.'"