Sheriff Joe's posse invades Guadalupe

The controversial sheriff puts his "good guys" with guns around Arizona schools. They might be the real threat

Published February 17, 2013 12:00PM (EST)

       (Reuters/Laura Segall)
(Reuters/Laura Segall)

Just days after the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre proclaimed that only “a good guy with a gun” can prevent horrors like the Newtown massacre, America’s most notorious sheriff announced that armed members of his volunteer posse would soon patrol schools in the Phoenix area.

“This is immediate,” said Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff. “I don’t need a new law to send out my posse.”

And sure enough, when classes resumed after Christmas break, Arpaio boasted on CNN that patrols had begun in Maricopa County at the 59 schools that fall under his primary jurisdiction. His armed and uniformed “possemen” would only appear on school grounds in the event of a crime, he said, but teachers, parents and students would notice them cruising school zones in marked vehicles.

No schools requested the help of Sheriff Joe’s nearly 3,500-member posse. It did not take long for reports to resurface that his good guys with guns might have questionable pasts or bad judgment – a Phoenix TV station reported that Arpaio has a history of welcoming sex offenders and domestic abusers into his posse. And that didn’t stop Arpaio from summoning the press to a school parking lot to dispense fuzzy details about his plan and invite media to ride along with his posse as they spooked a few kids on a nearby soccer field.

Residents of Guadalupe – which contracts with the MCSO for policing because the town is too small to afford its own force – were already spooked. In September, one of Arpaio’s deputies joined Tempe police in responding to an attempted burglary call – and shot and killed a teenage suspect. A deputy said he felt threatened and saw a knife; eyewitnesses in the neighborhood say he was putting his hands in the air to surrender when he was shot, and wonder why the deputy didn’t simply use a Taser.

"We are paying him to have certified deputies here, not to bring a circus and not to use our town as a political platform," said Guadalupe councilman Andrew Sanchez.

In red states and red towns across America, this is the response to Sandy Hook. And if the NRA gets its way, the number of armed volunteers in schools will only increase. But if the “good guys with guns” can’t be trusted and sheriffs like Arpaio are better at publicity stunts than policework, who will protect the kids then?

* * *

As grumpy as Arpaio looks, he loves being on TV.  During his 20 years at the helm of the nation’s largest sheriff’s office, he’s become notorious for cockamamie tactics disguised as zero-tolerance law enforcement. In recent years he’s wedged his way into national politics, trumpeting his aggressive (possibly unconstitutional) immigration sweeps, and even dispatching his posse to Hawaii to investigate the validity of President Obama’s birth certificate. For a primer on the self-proclaimed “Toughest Sheriff in America,” call the MCSO switchboard. Ask the operator to place you on hold.  Listen to the looped recording of a sultry female voice explaining Sheriff Joe’s “innovations” in law enforcement, most notably the Korean War-inspired tent city where more than 10,000 inmates await trial in pink underwear, a bright pink vacancy sign hanging from the watchtower, proof that there’s always room for more bad guys at the Maricopa County Jail.

Sheriff Joe’s Posse was raised in 1993, his first year in office, in the spirit of maximum enforcement for minimum cost. Half as many people lived in the Phoenix area back then, and according to MCSO lore, area malls were constantly terrorized by petty thugs and carjackers. No shopper was safe. Fulfilling one of his campaign promises, Sheriff Joe leveraged his constitutional right to deputize a new generation of possemen to patrol malls during peak shopping season. Their ranks and responsibilities have swelled ever since; two decades later those 3,500 men and women serve in more than 50 specialized posses, a roster nearly as large as the official employees on the MCSO payroll.

How do you join? The MCSO holds posse recruitment sessions on the third Wednesday of every month at its training facility in South Phoenix, just west of the animal shelter.  I sat through the first recruitment session of 2013, joining more than 40 aspiring possemen who arrived early, many with completed applications in hand. We gathered in a tidy auditorium adorned with black-and-white portraits of the Maricopa County sheriffs of yesteryear, dating back to its founding in 1871.  We were greeted by Deputy Tom Hughes, a quick-witted, flat-topped military vet who supervises recruitment and background checks for the posse program. A quick scan of the assembled: six people of color, four women, two men in camouflage, two men in Vietnam veteran hats, too many buzz cuts to count without looking suspicious.

The meeting began at 6:30 p.m. sharp with a DVD to pump us up.  Sheriff Joe materialized on the overhead screen, jabbing his meaty index finger at the camera as he told us how proud he was of his posse. A star-shaped badge swept across the screen, setting up a Winston Churchill quote about service. Star-swoosh to sepia-toned photographs of the original mounted posse from Arizona’s territorial days. Star-swoosh to a montage of 21st century possemen, romping around on four-wheelers to a bitchin’ electric guitar soundtrack. Then we get up close and personal with the posse as they assist on traffic stops, transport sullen brown people, round up deadbeats, practice hand to hand combat in the mat room, whack the shit out of a dummy with a baton, peek around the most dangerous corner of an imaginary crime scene, blast human-shaped silhouettes with semi-automatic rifles, and more thrills so intense that just watching could make you thirsty for a beer.  The film concludes with crosscuts to each of the featured possemen who stare right at the viewer, asking the question on everyone’s mind: “Are you ready?”

* * *

Nearly 4 million people live in Maricopa County, a 9,224-square-mile jurisdiction divided into seven districts.  Where these districts overlap with city law enforcement agencies, MCSO has concurrent jurisdiction, but much of the outskirts of the metro area fall under the primary jurisdiction of Sheriff Joe.  Some of this land feels like the last gasps of the housing boom, half-developed tracts where strip malls and subdivisions give way to dirt roads and hills of saguaro cacti.  A handful of these areas are small incorporated towns that have stubbornly survived suburban sprawl without being annexed by a larger municipality.  Seven of these towns contract with the MCSO to provide law enforcement in lieu of building out their own services, and these communities are where Sheriff Joe has dispatched possemen to patrol 59 elementary, middle and high schools.

One of these “contract cities” is Guadalupe, a 5,500 person town named after the Virgen de Guadalupe, whose holy image adorns homes and storefronts on every avenue.  Guadalupe was founded more than 100 years ago when a band of Yaqui Indians escaped prosecution in Mexico, seeking refuge in Arizona’s Salt River Valley.  Here on this 40-acre plot, the Yaqui built a settlement of homes and dirt roads, arranged cozily around a pair of white adobe churches in the center of town.  Paved streets waited until the 1960s.  Sewer service waited until the 1970s when the town was finally incorporated.  But otherwise Guadalupe has remained largely unchanged as the Phoenix metro area expanded in a neat commercial grid.  Today the town is a one-square mile island in the City of Tempe, flanked by Interstate 10 to the west, and a concrete irrigation canal to the east.

Guadalupe prides itself on its cultural heritage – part Mexican, part Yaqui – with a tradition of intermarriage between the two.  Its church and temple host Mexican and Yaqui religious festivals throughout the year.  If you can ignore the hum of the interstate and the jets streaking overhead from Sky Harbor airport, you can almost imagine this is a small town in Mexico.  People take their time getting around on foot or by bicycle.  Stray dogs have the right of way.  There is one school on Avenida del Yaqui: Veda Frank Elementary, home of the Peace Builders.

Unable to finance its own functional law enforcement, Guadalupe relies on MCSO despite a painful history.  In 2008 Sheriff Joe conducted highly publicized immigration sweeps here, complete with helicopters and a press conference in the parking lot of the Family Dollar.  When the mayor accused him of coming to town under false pretenses,  Arpaio told her to find another police department, and sent formal notification that its contract would be canceled.   Finding an alternative proved difficult for Guadalupe, as other nearby agencies were too strapped to provide adequate service. That’s why the city continues to pay the MCSO $1.2 million per year for its services, despite the ongoing problems.

“They’re not very culturally sensitive to the community here,” says Guadalupe resident Rose Sanchez, a 47-year-old mother and grandmother who has two teenagers, as well as nieces and nephews at Frank Elementary.  “There’s not a lot of trust.  People are afraid to call the police.”

Sheriff Joe’s immigration sweeps were so aggressive that some parents in mixed-status families were afraid to attend their children’s communion and confirmation ceremonies at the town church.  At other times, deputies have served warrants during Easter ceremonies at the Yaqui temple.  They have even disrupted Yaqui funerals, which traditionally culminate in a last meal for the loved one, beginning at midnight.  Deputies have broken up the gatherings for violating curfew, despite the fact that nearly the entire town is in attendance.

“Obviously it’s not a party,” Sanchez says. “There’s a coffin there.”

But the curfew is midnight, and the law is the law, and the law is Sheriff Joe.

* * *

Tempe School District, which oversees Frank Elementary, is confident that the intent of the new posse patrols is to keep kids safe, nothing more.  “Our understanding is that they’ll be near the school, but that they’ll be off school grounds,” said Monica Allread, community affairs coordinator for the district.  “The more neighbors and the more people in the community that can be vigilant and paying attention to what’s going on, and helping us keep people safe, the better.”

But for Andrew Sanchez, the Guadalupe councilman (and no relation to Rose), the problem is precisely that these possemen are not neighbors at all.  “The community doesn’t feel confident that these posse members can adequately watch over the town when there has been so much anguish.  When people do speak out against the sheriff, they send extra patrols to harass that family, just to let them know: don’t complain.  That’s not adequate police protection.  Right now there’s a sour taste.”

This isn’t Sanchez’s first standoff with Sheriff Joe.  As a member of Guadalupe’s Citizens Camera Crew back in 2010, he and fellow activists patrolled the streets with cameras, documenting instances of racial profiling and other MCSO misconduct.  During the recent election, as Arpaio faced two lawsuits over allegations of racial profiling and discrimination, residents in Guadalupe played a major role in a Latino get-out-the-vote effort aimed at removing Arpaio from office.  Despite Sheriff Joe’s historic bankroll, he won by a razor-thin margin, 80,000 votes, give or take a few irregularities with provisional ballots in Latino neighborhoods.

At his Jan. 9 press conference, Arpaio grew agitated when a reporter mentioned Sanchez’s objection to the school patrols: “If he doesn’t like it, go find another police department,” Arpaio said.  “Why is he afraid to have my posse in Guadalupe trying to protect his kids?  What’s he worried about?”

* * *

Sanchez’ concerns seem clear enough: That some of these volunteers might be loose cannons, or vigilante types. Back at the posse recruitment session, now that the DVD is over, Deputy Hughes clicks through a PowerPoint that explains how the program works.

He explains that posse members support sworn deputies in a variety of roles, from office administrative work and routine traffic control to search and rescue.  Find yourself arrested by the MCSO, and that sworn deputy might summon a posseman to transport you to the county jail.  The idea here is that if a posseman saves the sworn deputy a 45-minute drive to the jailhouse, that deputy can spend those 45 minutes on other duties.  After just 16 hours of training in legal procedures and traffic control, any Arizonan over 18 years of age with an able body and a marginally untarnished background can score a Posse ID card, which authorizes him or her to wear a Class B sheriff deputy’s uniform -- as long as he is willing to shave his facial hair in accordance with Sheriff Joe’s dress code. Intermediate and advanced possemen can take on more responsibilities.  Those with radio commander certification can drive a marked police vehicle, and more than 500 qualified armed possemen have received enough weapons training to carry an MCSO-approved firearm.

Sheriff Joe’s Posse is actually composed of more than 50 specialty posses, each its own 503(c)(3) nonprofit businesses with commanders, committees and bylaws.  Some are geographically based with the intent of providing protection to a certain community.  Others are based on common interests or areas of expertise.  The K-9 Posse is for people who like dogs.  The Communications Posse is full of ham radio enthusiasts. The Cold Case Posse follows up on dead ends.  Once you get past Deputy Hughes, all subsequent involvement, training and certification will come not from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, but through posse instructors.  Although possemen are insured by the MCSO against on-duty mishaps, the posses are entirely funded on their own dime, relying on dues, fundraisers or sponsorships from Taser or the local tire shop.  Every vehicle and custom paint job, every uniform and can of pepper spray, every sidearm and bullet is bought and paid for by possemen themselves.

“It’s an expensive hobby,” warns Deputy Hughes.

Tonight the commanders of several posses are here to recruit new members, offering sponsorships that might help us get through the approval process more quickly.  First is the commander of Westbrook Village Posse, which was raised to protect a nearby retirement village and guard residents’ homes during extended vacations.  He has his own PowerPoint, “Why Westbrook Village?” spotlighting the posse’s most attractive features, including four marked cars and two marked golf carts complete with top lights.  The commander of the Jeep Posse takes center stage and asks, “Who’s got a 4x4 and likes to go off-roading?” before describing how his posse helps comb the desert in support of MCSO operations, often in the middle of the night.  Finally, a silver-haired man in a pilot’s jumpsuit invites us to consider the Aviation Posse, which uses private planes and helicopters to monitor Maricopa County from the air during search and rescue missions.

All that stands between these recruits and this life of adventure is Deputy Hughes and his 10-page application, which begins with an important warning: “Everyone has a history, and sometimes it is difficult to disclose experiences or decisions you may not be proud of.”  Hughes explains the importance of honesty during this process, for he says he will subject the application to the same background check as a sworn deputy, even dipping into a candidate’s juvenile history.

On Page 5, we are asked to inventory our traffic and parking citations, plus every instance where we have been arrested, convicted, charged, questioned or detained by law enforcement. Hughes explains how to mark the drug use frequency charts on Page 6, which includes "yes" or "no" boxes for peyote, mescaline and inhalants.  A separate chart for marijuana asks applicants to indicate their range of pot smoking from zero times to 51+ times.  Both charts are  split into two time frames – before 21 years old, and after 21 years old – as if our entire lives could be divided into before and after we should have known better.  Page 7 includes space to provide a lengthy explanation.  “I read Page 7,” Hughes assures us.  As I look around,  aspiring possemen are puzzling through the pages, checking boxes and writing mini-essays like students completing a standardized test.

The MCSO Public Information Office is quick to point out that among the lineup of sketchy possemen named in the local CBS affiliate’s investigation, none were adjudicated – found guilty or charged – with the crimes in question.  “If a posseman commits a crime, he’s going to get punished accordingly,” says Sgt. Brandon Jones.  “Now we can’t say he’s going to get unpaid time, because he’s already not getting any paid time, but if it happens again he’s going to get released from the posse, because we don’t want to have these constant hiccups.”

But there have been hiccups.  In 2003, Arpaio hatched a plan for a glorious prostitution sting, dispatching hundreds of deputies and posse members to arrest more than 70 men and women, cameras rolling the entire time.  Ultimately, the county attorney refused to prosecute when it was discovered that deputies and posse members “deviated from standard investigative practices” by getting buck-naked and engaging in sex acts during the investigation.

In 2008, a posseman was arrested in Flagstaff for allegedly throwing his girlfriend to the ground and choking her while trying to sexually assault her.  According to the police report, he threatened to call the police himself because he “had a badge” and knew the responders would be on his side.  His record was cleared after an anger management program, and the man maintained his posse membership.

But even those disturbing events distract from the real danger of the posse, which isn’t that it’s haphazard, but rather that it’s highly structured and well-resourced.  These possemen may not be sworn deputies, but the most committed among them have been through hours of training and are fiercely loyal to Sheriff Joe.  They are no more or less likely to be corrupt or trigger happy than anyone else in the MCSO, but that might not be saying much.  They’re essentially a private police force operating within the police force.

“We will move you as fast as humanly possible through the program,” Hughes tells the assembled volunteers, although he is clear it could take up to 18 months to become “the cream of the crop,” qualified armed personnel.  These are the “good guys” who will stop the bad guys with guns at your local school.  These guys take several dozen hours of extra training, including 16 hours on mechanical restraints (“A fancy college word for handcuffs,” cracks Hughes), four hours on chemical ordinances, and 60 hours on firearms, concluding with a one-hour interactive MILO range simulation that assesses a person’s judgment about when to use deadly force.

Feeling safer?

* * *

On Sept. 12, 2012, the temperature in Guadalupe was in the cool 90s after several days of rain.  At last the summer heat was breaking and across Maricopa County people were looking forward to fewer air-conditioned days.  At 9:45 a.m., as the kids at Frank Elementary were in class, Tempe police responded to reports of a burglary near the border of Tempe and Guadalupe. They called MCSO for backup.

The young suspects fled along the canal that divides the two jurisdictions. We don’t know exactly what happened next.  According to MCSO, Tempe police and MCSO deputies gave chase. A sworn deputy described as a “seasoned veteran” spotted one of the suspects by the canal, 19-year-old Joel “Joey” Smith III.

According to court records, Smith was wanted on a warrant for dodging his probation officer.  In April 2008, when he was 15 years old, he was arrested on charges of sexual conduct with someone under the age of 15.  In what must have been one of the world’s worst plea bargains, he copped to a lesser count in exchange for lifetime probation.

“There are certain parameters we train our deputies on.  When to shoot and when not to shoot,” according to MCSO spokesman Jeff Sprong, who said that Smith was carrying a knife. “Obviously, this officer thought that his life and other officers’ lives were in danger, so he decided to end the threat, so to speak.”

Two Guadalupe women heard shots and ran outside to see what was happening.  Both told reporters that Smith did not appear to have a knife, that he did not try to attack the officers, that he raised his hands to surrender.

The deputy shot Smith once in the stomach and once in the neck.  When paramedics arrived, the boy was still talking.  By the time they carried him across the canal, they were providing advanced life support.  He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

Four days later, several hundred people marched in a candlelight vigil to the place where Smith was shot, an effort organized to quell outrage in the community.  “Bottom line, he did something wrong and there should have been consequences,” Smith’s aunt told reporters as she fought back tears.  “I do feel like maybe overreaction by the police department was taken and other measures could have possibly been taken to prevent something like this.”

The investigation is ongoing by the sheriff’s office and the county attorney.  Months later, some people still aren’t convinced that Joey was even on the same side of the canal as the deputy.

* * *

With so much controversy surrounding the actions of a sworn deputy, questions swirl around the presence of volunteer possemen in Guadalupe.  You’d better follow orders from a sworn deputy, but what about a volunteer in a uniform and a marked car?  Does a posseman have authority to pull you over, run your license plate, issue a citation or draw his gun?  Few people know the answers, and Arpaio thrives on the ambiguity, taking every opportunity to tout his posse’s size, firepower and enforcement capabilities, even if some of those claims don’t hold water.

Across the street from Frank Elementary, a gentleman sells oranges from the back of his truck.  Together we watch a marked MCSO vehicle parked in the center lane of Avenida Yaqui, less than 200 feet from the doors of the school.  A crossing guard shepherds kids from sidewalk to sidewalk.  Soon another marked car posts up in the school parking lot.  They are supposed to be patrolling the perimeter, not remaining stationary on school grounds, but these guys aren’t moving.

“The kids are afraid,” said the orange salesman.  “They’re afraid for their parents and grandparents.”

Sanchez is organizing a community forum to discuss this matter, and he’s invited the MCSO’s District 1 commander to attend.  Guadalupe wants some basic questions answered: What kind of authority will possemen have?  Can the city know their identities?  What exactly are they going to be doing around the school?

Even sworn deputies seem to have trouble answering those questions.  On another recent afternoon shortly after school was dismissed, I knocked on the window of one of the marked vehicles.  A uniformed gentleman sat inside, tapping at his laptop.  He confirmed that he was a sworn deputy, but that he was aware of the volunteer school patrols.

“Some of them take their training very seriously,” he said.  “They can be real helpful.  Some of them are former law enforcement, so they can be more intuitive.”

On a good day, there are seven to 10 MCSO vehicles on patrol in the Maricopa County area.  The new posse protection program brings 59 marked units to the street.  That means that during school hours, roughly 85 percent of the marked units on the road are volunteer possemen.

“There's another one right there,” the deputy said, pointing to another unit creeping out of the school parking lot.  “Now there’s two of us.”

In a town like Guadalupe, when a second MCSO unit patrols a one-square mile area, you notice the difference.  I asked the deputy whether he could tell just by looking whether the second unit was a posseman or a sworn deputy.

The deputy squinted at the marked unit vehicle as it rolled past, seemingly unable to tell.

“I think so,” he said.  “I think I’ve worked with that guy before.”

* * *

“School should be a haven for kids,” says Sanchez.  Despite his history with Sheriff Joe, he sees room for cooperation, even if he ultimately wants Guadalupe to have its own police force someday.  “We just wish the sheriff would approach this in a sound way that would encourage kids to want to join law enforcement when they grow up.”

Arpaio insists that he prefers paid school resource officers to possemen, and that these patrols are only until the end of the school year.  By then he hopes lawmakers will have taken action.  (Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne’s solution: arm teachers.) In the meantime, attendance at these posse meetings is up.  Deputy Hughes is confident they are going to have a strong recruitment year.  When a posse commander asked the audience how many people were there in response to the school program, fully half the people raised their hands.

With only a couple of exceptions, these folks struck me as dedicated and capable people who want to do right by their community. A well-coordinated volunteer program, working together with school communities, might be one way to keep our kids safe from shooters and all kinds of other dangers.  But when you authorize people to wear uniforms, train them to drive marked vehicles, make arrests, and fire weapons under the guise of a deputy, they become more than just volunteers.   And when you trump up their authority on the nightly news and dispatch them to communities where their presence might not be wanted, they become a threat.

Meanwhile, as the town of Guadalupe waits for answers about the death of Joey Smith, any MCSO presence in Guadalupe, volunteer or otherwise, is met with a sense that Sheriff Joe is testing its limits. “These people aren’t just patrolling the schools,” says Rose Sanchez. “They’re patrolling the whole town of Guadalupe.  Could I be suspicious?  Does my son look suspicious?”

By Chris Feliciano Arnold

Chris Feliciano Arnold has written journalism, essays, and fiction for Playboy, The Atlantic, Los Angeles Review of Books and other magazines and websites.

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