Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff who reinstituted chain gangs and challenged the legitimacy of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, has dispatched armed volunteers to patrol around schools outside Phoenix after last month’s mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
School officials and parents weren’t asked if they wanted the 500 volunteers, some with automatic and semiautomatic weapons, who were posted to areas around 59 schools in parts of Maricopa County under Arpaio’s jurisdiction, the sheriff said yesterday.
“We had to do this too quickly,” Arpaio said. He said he had no obligation to clear the plan with educators. “We are not going into the schools. This is outside the schools; it is not on school properties or inside the schools.”
Arpaio, who bills himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and was re-elected to a sixth term in November, said he acted after the arrest last month of a 16-year-old girl in connection with a school shooting plot in Mesa, Arizona.
“This is a preventative program,” Arpaio, 80, said in a telephone interview. “They will be circulating around the schools with high visibility so that everyone, the bad guys, will know we have armed posse members that can take action if something happens with the kids or teachers.”
School safety and gun control have come under scrutiny after a 20-year-old with a semiautomatic rifle killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, Dec. 14.
Arpaio’s volunteers, mostly members of the sheriff’s 3,000 member “posse,” wearing uniforms and in marked vehicles, are patrolling in unincorporated areas of the county as well as small communities that contract with his office for police service. He emphasized that the volunteers are trained in the use of firearms and law-enforcement tactics.
“These are not vigilantes off the street,” Arpaio said.
Ann Donahue, a spokeswoman for the 13-campus Litchfield Elementary School District, said officials learned about the plan in the newspaper and are waiting for the sheriff to answer their request for more information.
“We are certainly happy that he wants to patrol, but we want to be partners to determine the implementation plan,” Donahue said, noting that not all of the district’s schools are in Arpaio’s jurisdiction.
Critics of the sheriff questioned whether posse members are qualified and suggested the patrols are a publicity stunt.
“Just because it happened in Newtown doesn’t mean every school, every principal, every parent thinks this is needed at their school,” said Randy Parraz, president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, a group that has led protests against the sheriff. “He is grandstanding after a massacre of 20 children to use it for his own benefit.”
Parraz also criticized the use of Arpaio’s posse, which has played a role in so-called crime suppression sweeps targeting Latinos. The U.S. Justice Department filed a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff that accuses him and his deputies of systematically discriminating against Latinos in arrests and in jails.
There are “critics out there worried I’ll use this as an excuse to lock up illegal immigrants, but that is not the case,” Arpaio said.
The sheriff, who has held office for 20 years, established his posse in 1993 and has used it for years to show a law enforcement presence at area shopping malls during the holiday season. The volunteers, many of them retirees, have also been used in major operations, including a botched 2003 undercover prostitution sting that resulted in no charges because the posse members engaged in sex acts.
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