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

As a rule, posse members aren't supposed to take enforcement action unless a sworn officer is present. Deputies say they've tried to make the volunteers understand they have no authority to make traffic stops, but some of them can't seem to help themselves. Chief Hendershott says that Keller is an exception because he's a retired police officer who's retained his law enforcement certification.

Keller turns on the red and blue flashing lights, but the motorcyclist, even after looking back, doesn't seem to understand that Keller wants him to pull over. He pulls the bike into the parking lot of a Circle K and doubles back around some fuel pumps.

It's a brilliant move, and all he has to do is punch it and he's scot-free. There's no way the Bronco can turn around quickly in the postage-stamp-size parking lot.

Instead, the motorcyclist gets off his bike and pulls off the lid of the gas tank. He still doesn't seem to realize that he's wanted by Sheriff Joe's posse, and he's surprised when Keller and Grossman rush over to him, their badges prominently displayed.

The motorcyclist is apologetic, and explains that he bought the bike that morning. He produces a bill of sale and Keller calls it in on his radio while Grossman stands watch. Nearby, a Phoenix police officer drives off after stopping briefly to watch the bust. And only a few feet away, a pickup truck full of little Latino boys in soccer uniforms is pointing at the posse men and can't stop laughing.

Facts keep getting in the way of the myth of Sheriff Joe. Crime statistics, for example, don't support the notion that Arpaio's policies are having any real effect. The nation's crime rate has fallen gradually for five straight years, as has the rate for Western states in general. But Maricopa County's crime rate, after falling in 1992, turned sharply upward in 1993 and 1994. (Department of Justice figures for 1995 won't be available for several more months.)

Although the upward trend coincides with Arpaio's tenure, it would be unfair to blame the sheriff, because crime rates often follow demographic shifts--such as Maricopa County's recent growth spurt--over which a sheriff has no control. At the same time, it's unfair for Arpaio to imply that his policies deter crime, something he has not hesitated to do.

More facts explode another central myth: that Arpaio's highest priority is fighting the proliferation of drugs in Maricopa County.

When budget shortfalls forced difficult decisions for Enforcement Support--the division that runs the posse, search-and-rescue operations and the DARE program--it was the DARE program, which sends deputies to schools to educate kids about the dangers of drugs, that got the ax. It was suspended for a semester in the spring of 1995 just as posse training experienced the single-largest quarterly increase.

Arpaio feigns shock when it's suggested that his posse buildup was politically expedient. He says the posse is apolitical, and that he couldn't use Posse Foundation money for political ends even if he wanted to.

To friendlier audiences, however, Arpaio lets his guard down. In February, he told KFYI's Barry Young, "I just need to sell more pink underwear and I'll get reelected."

There's little doubt that he will. With his polls showing an approval rating exceeding 70 percent, he expects to face little challenge in November.

And he can expect little scrutiny from the media. More often than not, his stories are printed with a minimum of checking. Stories like the one he's repeated dozens of times, of how he and a reporter spent the night in his tent jail without any added security.

It's one of the most celebrated chapters of the Sheriff Joe myth.
And it's untrue.
The Sheriff's Office admits that several members of the Tactical Operations Unit--Maricopa County's version of SWAT--were stationed in a building nearby all night, ready in case Arpaio needed to be bailed out.

Arpaio says, "They may have been on call, but I'm going to tell you one thing. I told my staff I didn't want any protection. I say that all the time, even when I have threats. Because I don't want to tie up the deputies, okay? Now whether someone had TOU on call, you'll have to ask the staff on that. But there was no TOU in the tents or around the tents that I know of. . . . It's my staff. I went in there as things were.

"I presume any other sheriff would have had an army surrounding the tents."
The problem with that being, Joe Arpaio is the only sheriff who has an army.

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