Mike Stauffer's Third-Wheel Bid for Sheriff May Keep Arpaio in Office

One day after defending himself at a candidates' forum for keeping his day job as a lieutenant with the Scottsdale Police Department, Mike Stauffer announced that he will resign his post at the end of August to devote himself full time to his bid to replace Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The message was as plain as the veins on Arpaio's bulbous schnoz: Stauffer is all in, to the chagrin of Democrats who have pinned their hopes on former Phoenix Police Department Sergeant Paul Penzone. Might as well get used to it.

A challenge, on Penzone's behalf, of the 29,794 signatures that placed Stauffer on the general election ballot as an independent went nowhere. Stauffer's critics have kvetched that he paid for the bulk of his signatures, which is true.

But non-independent candidates have a much lower threshold than indies to achieve the required signatures, and paying for signature-gathering is standard in politics, particularly when a lot of them are necessary.

Still, Dems are incensed by Stauffer's candidacy. Though the guy's been running for more than two years, he's raised only $46,000, most of it from his own pocket, they cry.

Moreover, he lacks the volunteers and high-profile endorsements that Penzone has racked up.

Stauffer shrugged off such cavils at the aforementioned Hispanic Bar Association-sponsored forum.

"If I get everything done, and I get the message out, what does it matter whether I have a million dollars or one dollar in my account when this is all over?" Stauffer said.

And what about volunteers?

"I don't need hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of volunteers to speak for me," he claimed. "I can speak for myself."

In person, Stauffer is a likable guy, and I would not dispute his right to run, but his contention that all it takes is a website, a firm handshake, and a résumé to beat a sheriff who's been in power for two decades and has $4 million in the bank is, well, delusional.

This résumé, by the way, is not without a few blots. During his 20-plus years with the SPD, Stauffer's received about four disciplinary notices in his personnel file, which I obtained via a public-records request.

Two of the incidents are from the mid-'90s and hardly worth mentioning. If you're curious, here's Stauffer's entire jacket.

Reprimands from 2000 and 2011 are more serious. The former talks about an unnamed professional baseball player arrested for a "domestic violence crime."

A Scottsdale police detective who worked for Major League Baseball on the side asked Stauffer to omit the player's place of employment from the booking record "to avoid publicity."

Stauffer passed off the issue to his subordinates, who apparently complied with the detective's request.

"Your failure to supervise in this instance caused a record to be altered and misconduct to occur," the reprimand letter reads. "It also suggested to at least three officers that giving preferential treatment and altering records was permissible."

A spokesman for the Scottsdale PD said the police report for the incident is no longer on file. Stauffer tells me that his intention was to delay the inevitable press scrutiny and give the department's public-information officer a chance to deal with the situation.

"He was in custody," Stauffer says of the pro athlete. "It didn't affect the case at all. But [it was] my decision, my responsibility, and I would probably do that differently. I learn from my mistakes."

The 2011 issue is so fresh that the case hasn't been completely adjudicated. It has to do with Stauffer's involvement as a supervisor in a car chase involving 29-year-old Maricopa resident Rebekah Lynn Corwin.

For unclear reasons, Corwin flipped out one morning, allegedly hit a cop car with her pickup, and took off, with SPD officers and Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies in pursuit.

Along the way, she reportedly ran into more cop cars, injuring two officers. Police placed tire-deflation sticks in her path, and she crashed into a ditch. According to the SPD, Corwin had to be subdued with a Taser.

Before Stauffer took over the situation, his reprimand states, a supervisor had "terminated the pursuit" because of Corwin's "erratic behavior" and because there were "three minor children in the vehicle" with her.

As watch commander, Stauffer had been monitoring the chase via police radio. He overrode the supervisor and re-initiated the pursuit "without any significant improvement in the factors that led to the original decision to terminate," according to the reprimand.

The lieutenant then ordered a "moving box-in of the vehicle" to block the truck's advance. The SPD's operations orders prohibit this tactic, unless deadly force is warranted or the driver is a threat to human life.

Stauffer was asked why he had ordered the risky maneuver. He told investigators he did it because Corwin had assaulted two officers with her truck.

He then was asked about the children in the vehicle, ages 2, 4, and 11.

"That didn't enter my mind," Stauffer's quoted as saying. "I didn't think of it as a deadly force authorization."

Stauffer suggests that the quote was taken out of context.

"I objected to the way that was written," Stauffer tells me. "The children did enter my mind. Was I thinking in a deadly force mode? No."

Stauffer points out that the chase was over before the box-in was used. And, as was reported at the time, the children were not injured during the chase or the crash.

Stauffer says he would handle the situation exactly the same way if he had to do it again.

"I knew that there was going to be some question about what I did do," he tells me. "I went by what I knew and what my experience was . . . I was doing a worst-case scenario kind of thing with this situation.

"I'd much rather get a letter of reprimand for a policy violation than have to live with the fact that I let three kids get killed by somebody who I thought might have been unbalanced."

I can appreciate that there are judgment calls in police work, as well as in politics. Whatever you conclude about Stauffer's judgment from the 2011 incident, no one was hurt because of it.

But will that be the case when it comes to his decision to double-down on a candidacy that lacks significant financial or volunteer support?

Stauffer would have us believe that he can best Arpaio in a three-man race by using social and earned media.

Penzone's camp argues that it can prevail over Joe, despite Stauffer's commitment to stay in the race. That's assuming Penzone gets past his self-funding primary rival, John Rowan.

Can Joe be beaten? Sure. In 2008, Dan Saban, running as a Democrat, scored 42 percent of the final tally, with more than a half-million votes to his name.

Keep in mind that Saban's campaign was hobbled by a lack of money, Arpaio's smear tactics, and a Democratic Party that abandoned Saban after persuading him to jump sides and leave the GOP to Joe.

Even with all his dough, the sheriff's more vulnerable this year than he was in 2008. Mano-a-mano, a solid candidate could smoke him.

What we don't know now is whether Stauffer's third-wheel candidacy will be the deciding factor in the sheriff's race. After all, a Libertarian ran for sheriff in 2008, but pulled a little more than 35,000 votes, not enough to have made up the difference between Saban and Arpaio.

If Stauffer's effect on the race is negligible, the negative results are Stauffer's alone to shoulder (i.e., his early retirement and a wad of cash blown on a vanity campaign).

But if the votes Stauffer pulls could have helped Penzone top Arpaio, Stauffer will get the blame, and we'll get another four years of brutality, incompetence, and abuse of power.

Which hardly seems fair. Unless, of course, you're Joe.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons