Russ Skinner appointed new Maricopa County sheriff | Phoenix New Times


Party-switching chief deputy Russ Skinner named Maricopa County sheriff

The longtime sheriff’s deputy changed political parties so he could replace Democrat Paul Penzone.
Russ Skinner was appointed Maricopa County Sheriff on Thursday. He said he's focused on security during upcoming elections in the county.
Russ Skinner was appointed Maricopa County Sheriff on Thursday. He said he's focused on security during upcoming elections in the county. Maricopa County Sheriff's Office
Share this:
Russ Skinner was formally appointed Maricopa County Sheriff on Thursday, cementing a role running the embattled agency he took charge of in January.

In a 4-1 vote, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors selected Skinner and filled a vacancy created when Paul Penzone left office on Jan. 12. Skinner, who has been chief deputy of the sheriff’s office since 2018, has been carrying out the duties of sheriff since Penzone's resignation.

State law required the board to appoint someone in the same political party as Penzone, a Democrat. Skinner — a Republican since 1987 — switched parties the day after Penzone resigned, according to the Arizona Republic.

Skinner was one of three finalists supervisors interviewed for the position. The others were Jeffrey Kirkham, most recently an Apache Junction police commander, and Glendale police Lt. Patrick Valenzuela, Sr. Kirkham was also a longtime Republican before recently switching parties.

Voters will pick a sheriff for a four-year term in November. Skinner will serve until that person takes office in January.

"Although I could have just walked away, collected my pension and moved on with my life, I decided to take on the challenge, to say, 'You know what, I want to keep certainty with this agency, especially with an election cycle coming up, major events coming up and keep continuity with the agency,'" Skinner said during a press conference after taking the oath of office.

Skinner, a county employee for 33 years, also said he was “apolitical.”

“I am bipartisan in the sense that I am a law enforcement professional, and I will do what needs to be done to uphold the law, uphold the constitution and make sure we keep Maricopa County safe moving forward," he said.

Steve Gallardo, the only Democrat on the board of supervisors, was the lone vote against Skinner. But he congratulated the new sheriff and said he looked forward to working with him to build the public's trust in the agency.

Supervisor Jack Sellers, the Republican chair of the board, said law enforcement shouldn’t be a partisan political position.

“We as a group really discounted that (former party affiliation) and went to find who is absolutely the best candidate to run the county sheriff’s office during what could be a very contentious year,” Sellers said. “We’re gonna be running three elections this year. We need someone who has the respect of the people in the county sheriff’s office and also the respect of the other law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County. Deputy Chief Skinner meets that qualification.”

In his remarks, Skinner said he would focus on security during elections later this year.

“The biggest thing I look at is this election cycle. I watched the board meeting yesterday, and I saw some unruliness there from the crowd. That’s unacceptable. Let’s respect each other,” Skinner said. “We have to get past the anger, the separation and the polarization.”

Skinner declined to say if he planned to run for election as sheriff in November, adding that he needed to discuss it with his family.
click to enlarge Former Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone
Former Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone announced Oct. 2 that he would step down, which he did on Jan. 12.
O'Hara Shipe

Skinner inherits years of court baggage

The sheriff’s office has an annual budget of $526 million and 3,500 employees, though Sellers said the office employs 4,000 people. By both metrics, it is one of the largest sheriff departments in the country.

When Penzone took office in 2017, he inherited an office plagued by scandals and controversy thanks to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of Arizona’s 12 worst politicians. Tent City, the notorious open-air jail that former Arpaio created, brought a national spotlight to Arpaio's discriminatory and dehumanizing policies.

“It represented all the things that are wrong about incarceration and law enforcement," Penzone said of Tent City, which he closed in 2017. “It was degrading, and it tried to pass this message as though by disrespecting and mistreating inmates that suddenly it would change behavior. And that was nonsense.”

But even with Penzone in command, the sheriff’s office has been under scrutiny for various controversies, including a ballooning list of unresolved misconduct cases.

Penzone also left behind a 16-year-old court case that dates back to Arpaio’s reign.

The class-action lawsuit Melendres v. Arpaio took Arpaio to court for his racial profiling practices. Penzone inherited the lawsuit when he became sheriff. In November 2022, U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow held Penzone in contempt in the case. According to Snow, the massive backlog of misconduct investigations had swelled during Penzone’s tenure, and it took the agency an average of 611 days to look into a complaint — far beyond the 85-day limit imposed under Snow's court order.

In October, Guadalupe residents said the sheriff’s office continues to racially profile drivers. The town contracts with the sheriff's office to provide law enforcement.

Skinner noted he used to patrol Guadalupe and wants to work with the town's residents to build trust.

“We are committed to gaining that trust and transparency, and I think a lot of that starts right here with communication and transparency,” Skinner said. “What you get with me is I will communicate, I will be transparent. My door is open.”

Sylvia Herrera, a community organizer at Barrio Defense Committees and member of the Community Advisory Board that was created to advise the sheriff's office, told New Times she and other local activists are concerned about Skinner’s involvement in Arpaio’s administration, which she said became evident during the Melendres case.

“We haven’t got a sense of where he’s coming from other than his participation in some of Arpaio’s activities that were questioned during the court hearings,” Herrera said. “We haven’t had recent interaction with him directly.”

When Penzone announced on Oct. 2 that he would step down, he lamented the court’s oversight of the sheriff’s office.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll do three terms under federal court oversight for a debt I never incurred and not be given the chance to serve this community in the manner that I could if you take the other hand from being tied around my back,” Penzone said.

Skinner struck a different tone on Thursday, though he said the office probably would not be fully compliant with court orders in the Melendres case this year.

“I can’t give you an estimate of when that will happen. All I can tell you is that the agency will progressively, continually and aggressively work towards the compliance efforts relative to that and make sure that we’re doing the right thing moving forward," Skinner said.
KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. Your membership allows us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls. You can support us by joining as a member for as little as $1.