PHOENIX – The sheriff for metropolitan Phoenix has launched a plan to have as many as 500 armed volunteers patrol areas just outside schools in an effort to guard against shootings like month's attack that left 26 people dead at a Connecticut elementary school.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said Wednesday that he plans to have 400 posse volunteers and another 100 volunteers known as reserve deputies patrol 59 schools in unincorporated areas of metro Phoenix and communities that pay his office for police services. The patrols began Monday at some schools, though the number of schools wasn't immediately available.
The patrols from the sheriff known for immigration enforcement and housing jail inmates in canvas tents has led some longtime critics to say Arpaio's latest effort is meant to grab headlines and won't be sustained over the long term.
"Why would people complain about my posse being in front of schools to act as prevention," Arpaio said, noting that he wants the patrols to last throughout the remainder of the school year.
The sheriff said school shootings in Connecticut and elsewhere and last month's arrest of an Arizona student accused of planning an attack at her high school led to his decision to launch the patrols.
The volunteers, dressed in uniforms and driving patrol vehicles, won't go onto school grounds unless they spot danger and won't sit in stationary spots, but rather will patrol several schools as part of their driving routes. Arpaio said he decided against putting volunteers on school grounds because he believes that decision would bring harsh criticism and that no one can keep his volunteers from driving in areas around schools.
Andrew Sanchez, a town council member in Guadalupe, a community of about 6,000 in metro Phoenix that pays Arpaio's office $1.2 million a year for police protection, said he doesn't want the sheriff's posse members patrolling outside schools in his town, as the sheriff says he plans to do.
Sanchez said he objects to the plan because posse volunteers aren't certified police officers. He predicted that Arpaio won't sustain the patrols over time once media attention on the patrols fades away.
"We are paying him to have certified deputies here, not to bring a circus and not to use our town as a political platform," Sanchez said.
Distrust of Arpaio in Guadalupe runs deep after the sheriff's deputies poured into the town during one of his first trademark immigration sweeps in April 2008. During the sweeps, deputies flood an area of a city – in some cases, heavily Latino areas – over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Arpaio has relied heavily on his posse, which consist of about 3,000 unpaid civilians, including action-film star Steven Seagal.
They assist deputies in duties such as providing free police protection at malls during the holidays, directing traffic at wreck scenes and transporting to jail the people who are arrested in immigration patrols. One group of posse members conducted an examination into the authenticity of President Barack Obama's birth certificate.
Members wear uniforms and can get authorized to carry a gun after training, though only 400 can actually carry guns. They can make arrests only at the direction of a deputy sheriff. Posse operations generally don't receive taxpayer money and instead are funded through contributions and dues paid by posse members.
The reserve deputies who will join posse members in the school patrols have all the training and powers of a regular law enforcement officer but aren't paid for their police work.
Arpaio said no taxpayer money will be spent in the patrols and that his volunteers will be supervised by radio or phone by deputies.
"The main mission is to act as a deterrent and prevention and let everyone know we are out there in marked cars," he said.