Recall Joe!

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Soon after the election, Arpaio launched a massive shakeup within the sheriff's office, and about 300 officers and civilians were reassigned to new duties. Several of the deputies moved off the SWAT team had openly supported Arpaio's Republican primary opponent, Saban. The transfers, including those of two SWAT commanders, were seen inside the department as retaliation.

The turmoil created tremendous stress among the remaining members of the SWAT team as they readied for a December 16 raid on a mobile home in search of a murder suspect.

A shootout ensued, and two sheriff's deputies were seriously wounded. The deputies -- Sean Pearce and Lew Argetsinger -- have since criticized Arpaio's decision to transfer key personnel from the team and reduce training. Both men told the East Valley Tribune after the shootout that they expected retribution from the sheriff's office for speaking out.

The Tribune quoted the men as saying they agreed to talk because they believe Arpaio's reorganization of the SWAT team and other changes put the lives of deputies and the public at greater risk.

Soon after the gunfight, Arpaio disbanded the entire SWAT team. And, typically, Arpaio launched a witch hunt. He called for an internal investigation of SWAT and ordered its former officers not to discuss the reorganization.

Despite the turmoil and his publicly disbanding the squad, Arpaio suddenly claimed the other day that he has a fully functioning SWAT team, after all. And, guess what? It's eligible for a $350,000 federal Homeland Security grant, he maintained.

Law enforcement experts say this is impossible, since the MCSO would have to all but start from scratch after eliminating the unit. It takes years of highly specialized team training, they say, to create an efficient and effective strike squad.

As for the grant, it's supposed to fund a highly specialized emergency-response unit capable of operating sophisticated equipment that could be used in the event of a terrorist attack.

The City of Phoenix is managing a program to create eight crack response teams scattered across the county. Phoenix is expected to supply personnel for three of these units, but has only enough manpower to fully staff two. The third was to be manned by members of the sheriff's office's SWAT and bomb squads.

Now serious questions have been raised over whether the MCSO can fulfill this mission. Skeptics say it appears the sheriff's office is merely seeking the money to provide basic training for an entirely new SWAT team -- which is not what the grant is intended to do.

Jake Jacobson, executive director of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, a police labor union, says Arpaio is attempting to deceive federal and state authorities by falsely claiming he has a SWAT team capable of handling the duties required by the Homeland Security grant's specifications.

"It's a farce!" Jacobson declares. "To us, it borders on criminal that he's trying to take this money under the guise he has a SWAT team when, in reality, he doesn't."

MCSO supporters will quickly dismiss Jacobson's comments, claiming he's trying to undermine Arpaio in any way possible because the sheriff refuses to negotiate contracts with police unions. But other officials involved in the Homeland Security grant also are wary of the sheriff's office's handling of its SWAT team and the application for the grant.

Marcus Aurelius, emergency management coordinator overseeing Homeland Security grant applications in Phoenix, says he's also concerned over whether any new sheriff's SWAT team is qualified to receive the money.

"This thing is not over with. It's not a done deal," Aurelius says about whether the MCSO will get the money. "We're moving forward with things based upon what we have been told [by sheriff's office brass]. They are either correct in their statements, or they're not. If they're not, they're going to be held accountable for that."

SWATgate is the latest in a long and twisted avenue of screw-ups by Arpaio since he was first elected in 1992.

The most recent and expensive misadventure has been his failure to staff two new state-of-the-art jails.

Taxpayers have spent more than $500 million to build the facilities with more than 3,200 beds. Yet the jails remain virtually unused because Arpaio has been unable to fill more than 1,200 detention officer vacancies needed to safely operate the new facilities.

It's not as if the need for additional detention officers is a surprise.

Arpaio has had seven years to make sure there would be enough detention officers to open the jails. Voters first approved a 1/5th-of-a-cent sales tax for jail construction and operations in 1998. In 2002, voters extended the jail tax through 2027. The sales tax was projected to generate several billion dollars to build and operate new criminal justice facilities in the county.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty