Mutiny At The County

Sheriff Arpaio's deputies say his vaunted posse does little more than waste money and slake their boss's thirst for publicity

Maricopa County taxpayers have paid for the training of 2,694 badge-carrying men and women who make up Sheriff Joe Arpaio's posse. They have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to train 800 of those posse members to shoot straight.

Yet only 21 warm bodies fill chairs this morning at the Durango Complex.
It's the second Saturday of Arpaio's posse drug-bust program, Operation Rolling Thunder, but few posse members have rolled out of bed.

They're scattered sparsely in a sea of folding chairs, some in plain clothes, others dressed to look exactly like sheriff's deputies. Most carry sidearms.

Sergeant Rich Rosky of the narcotics division is shuffling papers at a podium. It's the sworn officer's job to give the posse morning assignments, and he looks like he'd rather be elsewhere.

He asks the 19 men and two women if anyone would volunteer to answer phones. There's an agonized silence and some squirming in the folding chairs, and Rosky must cajole them. Finally, a volunteer raises his hand.

The rest, hoping for meatier assignments, breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Rosky then gets the attention of the two women, who sit several rows away from each other.

"I'm going to pair you two together. It's not a sexist thing, but I figure you two can talk to each other," he says.

"That is a sexist thing," one of the women answers.
Giggles wash over the room. The women end up paired together, but they take it good-naturedly, filing out with the rest of the posse to the unmarked cars waiting outside.

Rosky has grouped them into teams that will transport suspects arrested by narcotics officers. Other teams will roam freely, waiting to hear about busts going down. Then they'll speed to the scene to back up the sworn deputies.

The posse members lucky enough to get this detail are introducing themselves to one another and shaking hands. They tend to be the ones dressed most like deputies, and they stride out of the building in anticipation.

You can almost feel the sworn officers crossing their fingers.
In the three years since Arpaio announced his intention to build up the county's civilian posse and put it in law enforcement situations, critics have warned of the day that a rash volunteer pulls his weapon and kills someone.

That probably won't happen soon. Only a small number of the most dedicated volunteers actually turn up regularly for posse programs, and most of the time they're simply transporting prisoners, answering telephones or selling pink underwear.

Besides, the posse's already caused plenty of damage without firing a shot. At least that's what some of the sheriff's severest critics say.

They say Arpaio has misled the public about the cost and effectiveness of the posse, and that he's done it solely to boost his popularity. He's crassly cashed in on the volunteerism of thousands of concerned citizens while putting real law enforcement in jeopardy, particularly in the county's unincorporated areas.

These critics should know what they're talking about. They work for Arpaio.
In the past six months, New Timeshas interviewed dozens of deputies, both active and recently retired, from every division of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. They tell of a severe and widespread crisis in morale and a general lack of respect for "America's toughest sheriff."

Arpaio's sworn officers say that law enforcement has taken a back seat to public relations and the posse.

Public records bear them out. Between 1992, the last year of Sheriff Tom Agnos' administration, and 1994, Arpaio's second year as sheriff, training hours for posse members increased 6,000 percent. Training the posse has become the primary task of the department's training division, displacing instruction for enforcement officers, jail detention officers and civilian staff.

Deputies say that while Arpaio tells the public the posse saves the county millions, the opposite--that it has actually cost taxpayers millions--is true. After Arpaio launched his first Christmas season mall patrol in 1993, sworn officers were sufficiently concerned about this duplicity that some of them leaked news about it to the press. Pressured by the leaks, Arpaio called for an internal audit of the program: It showed that the "free" six-week holiday program cost the county $160,000.

Deputies also charge that most of the money spent for posse training is wasted. Officers heavily involved in training say that eight in ten posse members disappear after finishing training and never donate any time to the department. A dedicated posse man who donates more than 1,000 hours of his time each year calls 80 percent a conservative figure, and says getting posse members out for what they call "Joe shows"--posse events staged for media--is like pulling teeth.

Arpaio predicted that Operation Rolling Thunder would mobilize 1,000 posse members; records show that 100 turned out on the first day and the numbers dwindled quickly thereafter. By the fourth week of the highly publicized program, an average of nine posse members was showing up each day to help bust drug dealers. That's nine of 2,694, or 0.3 percent.

Perhaps most important, the shift in Sheriff's Office resources to the posse--"Joe's sacred cow," according to one retired deputy--has come just as the agency has been put under severe budget restraints. At a time when Arpaio has complained about budget cuts threatening his ability to perform mandated functions (he went so far as to sue the county Board of Supervisors in 1994, saying that he'd have to close jails unless he got more money), he has poured the department's energy into building up his private civilian army.

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