Sheriff Joe Arpaio's bid to make schools safer: armed posse patrols nearby

In the wake of the Connecticut shooting, Joe Arpaio, who describes himself as America's toughest sheriff, announces a plan to have armed volunteers patrol the areas near schools in Maricopa County, Ariz.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
In this October 2012 file photo, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks during a campaign rally in Mesa, Arizona. Arpaio, who describes himself as America's toughest sheriff, offers bid to make schools safer.

In a bid to bolster school safety after the Sandy Hook shooting, a posse of armed volunteers in the Phoenix vicinity will patrol the areas near schools.

It’s the latest undertaking of Joe Arpaio, who describes himself as America’s toughest sheriff.

“I want everybody to know we’re there,” explains Sheriff Arpaio, who will outline his plan at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The posse patrols in Maricopa County come as educators, authorities, politicians, and others across the United States grapple with ways to keep students safe in light of the Dec. 14 shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school. The national discussion has included such controversial options as allowing teachers to carry guns and placing armed guards on school grounds.

Sixty-four percent of Americans support increasing a police presence in schools, while 29 percent oppose it, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted Jan. 2-7. Eight percent of respondents said they were “not sure.”

To the sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county, a quick solution seemed obvious: post uniformed, gun-carrying posse volunteers in marked cars near schools for high visibility.

“We’ve got some [volunteers] with automatic weapons; I’m not afraid to say that,” Arpaio says.

The areas around some 50 schools under the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office will be patrolled, but the sheriff wouldn’t divulge the exact number of volunteers to be deployed. Up to 400 of the posse members are trained and certified to carry firearms, as are roughly 100 reserve deputies who also may take part in the daily patrols through the end of the school year.

At Litchfield Elementary School District, where areas near some of the schools are subject to the patrols, officials welcome the arrival of posse members outside the grounds. But they draw a line at having armed volunteers inside the property.

“They’d have to have approval from us, needless to say,” says Ann Donahue, a district spokeswoman.

The district has few details about the sheriff's new strategy, she says: “This is Sheriff Joe's program. He put that forth, and the schools have not been contacted yet.”

Volunteers will patrol school perimeters, Arpaio says, but they won’t hesitate to enter the grounds in the event of an emergency.

“They’re trained to take action,” he says.

Although posse members purchase their own firearms and other needed equipment, they are insured through the sheriff’s office. If volunteers become involved in a serious incident, they could be a liability for the county.

“They have to be acting in a specific capacity, following orders, all of those kinds of things,” says Cari Gerchick, a Maricopa County spokeswoman.

The county did not need to sign off on the patrols because the sheriff already has the authority to deploy a posse. The volunteers for years have worked effectively in various operations, including helping to rid area malls of crime, Arpaio says.

Posse members have also participated in controversial sweeps of mostly Latino neighborhoods to find and arrest illegal immigrants.

The sheriff is not the only elected official offering ideas for how to strengthen security at schools in gun-friendly Arizona. State Attorney General Tom Horne favors arming at least one educator per school.

Arizona is among a handful of states that allow concealed weapons without a permit. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, a strong Second Amendment supporter, recently said she is willing to discuss school safety and gun control in the 2013 legislative session, which starts next Monday.

The Monitor/TIPP poll also found that Americans generally support gun ownership by fellow citizens (70 percent support and 24 percent oppose). But at the same time, they favor more restrictive laws governing gun ownership (65 percent versus 24 percent).

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