New Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone may be looking to modernize former sheriff Joe Arpaio's posse system.
New Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone may be looking to modernize former sheriff Joe Arpaio's posse system.
Stephen Lemons

Is Maricopa County Rounding Up Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Old Posses?

Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone has tapped an advisory panel to re-examine the role of the agency’s civilian volunteer posses, eight months after the new sheriff scrapped the posse that investigated former President Barack Obama’s birth.

Penzone announced Friday that his executive advisory board began a review of the county’s posses at the end of August. He did not say in a prepared statement when that work would wrap up.

Earlier this year, the SPEAR committee, called that because it stands for Sheriff Penzone’s Executive Advisory Board, looked at the functions of Tent City. Penzone later phased out the closure of the controversial outdoor jail that helped propel Joe Arpaio to national prominence.

The committee is composed of lawyers, community leaders, civil rights advocates, academics, and others.

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office lists 36 posses, ranging alphabetically from the Advisory Posse to the Westbrook Village Posse. The posses range in mission and capability. Some are set up for local patrols, others search-and-rescue efforts, and still others are defined by areas of expertise such as aviation, dog handling, technology, and such.

Penzone disbanded the Cold Case Posse in January, days after taking office. Arpaio gave that posse the job of investigating Obama’s birth certificate.

In March, the SPEAR committee released its Tent City findings. The next month, Penzone held a press conference to tell reporters that the “circus atmosphere” of Tent City was coming to a close.

If Penzone has similar designs on the remaining posses, the MCSO’s communique wasn’t saying so.

“We could not deliver top-notch service without the commitment of our hundreds of volunteer Posse members and their leaders,” Penzone said in his statement, declining interview requests. “They provide expertise, services, and assistance to MCSO every day. Our commitment is to provide heightened support, coordination, and oversight, to ensure the highest quality of service to our community.”

Later in the same release, former Arizona Attorney General and SPEAR chairman Grant Woods echoed the sentiment.

“The Posse has a history of service to the people of Maricopa County that we value greatly,” Woods said. “They’ve been extremely successful and expanded significantly over the years. We need to get a better understanding of how the Posse can thrive in the mission and fit into a sophisticated Sheriff’s office.”

So where is the tip of the spear pointed? Where does this all lead?

We asked Woods and are waiting for a response.

Former Arizona Attorney general Grant Woods chaired the advisory committee that urged Penzone to close Tent City.
Former Arizona Attorney general Grant Woods chaired the advisory committee that urged Penzone to close Tent City.
Stephen Lemons

In the meantime, word is that MCSO is aiming to modernize, not scrap the posse system. The posses had become politicized in recent years and had to adopt new training requirements after the settlement in the federal class-action civil rights lawsuit that led to Arpiao's criminal contempt of court conviction and subsequent pardon.

The federal criminal complaint in that case highlighted probably the most controversial role of posses under Arpaio. He relied on their help with immigration enforcement, in what became widely known as "immigration sweeps" that targeted heavily Latino neighborhoods.

MCSO says it hopes the committee will burrow into the details of posses' internal structure, membership, training, fundraising, and accountability, and to help the volunteer groups modernize for a 21st-century role.

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