Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is phasing in his new “school posse” program this week, focusing on 52 schools in the county. While some parents and teachers are happy about it, many others are less than thrilled. Muddying the waters is the lack of identification of the volunteer force. Well, that, and the fact that some of them have criminal backgrounds.
The posses began to take their places on Monday, but the schools had little information about the men who are supposedly protecting their students. One principal spoke of confusion about two men in an umarked car and plain clothes patrolling around the school. Another principal said that they were told there would be men patrolling but nothing else, including whether or not each school gets its own detail.
Schools and parents in the Phoenix area are split about the task force. Some welcome the increased security — one school is in a high-crime area and has been on lock-down four times recently because of neighborhood crime — but others are concerned about the lack of accountability. Though the Sheriff’s office is meeting with school officials and parents about the program to answer questions, some aspects of it give them pause. Others are enthusiastic:
“It does make me feel a little bit safer with all the stuff that goes on around here. My son is constantly on lockdown. However, I feel like they should be on foot doing something inside the school like a security guard or something,” said parent Lea Block.
The thing that has many detractors worried most is that some of Joe’s volunteers have criminal backgrounds. A spokesman said that some of these men have “… faced disciplinary action in connection with their crimes, either avoided felony convictions or petitioned to have their records expunged, and are now moving on.” The fact that the crimes these men may have committed are not made public is troubling, considering the positions in which they are being placed. There are about 3,000 volunteers in Arpaio’s program and, though they will not be on the campus proper, the proximity and access they will have to students makes their criminal pasts worrisome to critics.
Fans of the fatuous Sheriff point out that a similar program which began guarding malls 10 years ago has worked perfectly, holding violent incidents at bay and arresting 31 individuals. They also credit Sheriff Joe with stopping a potential disaster in December involving a 16-year-old girl. She was arrested after authorities received a tip that she was planning on killing her classmates and then herself at a Phoenix High School. She’d had the event planned since a week before the Connecticut shootings and was ready to implement it when she was caught.
Arpaio decided to deploy the school program after the Newtown school shootings, saying that he had the authority to “mobilize private citizens to fight crime.” He says that he does not need permission from either schools or county officials to station the civilian force in towns that fall under his jurisdiction. He assures those who are concerned that the patrols are well-trained, having undergone 1,000 hours of weapons training. Critics aren’t worried about them being able to use their weapons, they are disturbed about whether or not the volunteers understand discretion in that use. Posse member Jerry Johnson unintentionally illustrates why:
“… if our lives were threatened, or a child’s life was threatened, [or] a teacher’s life was threatened and we see that while on patrol, we would be prepared to take some kind of action.”
The patrols will not be on the school campuses but patrolling the area in cars and, one assumes, on foot. Nobody questions their intentions, however it is disquieting that the minds of these men appear to be squarely set on using their guns to deal with any emergencies that may arise. There is a reason vigilantism is illegal. This is not the Wild West, no matter how much Sheriff Joe fantasizes that it is. With 3,000 armed men, some of whom are criminals — Joe is not being very transparent about who they are and what they did — prowling around looking for reasons to use their Joe-given authority and their guns, what could possibly go wrong?