PHOENIX — Some posse groups in metro Phoenix that once served as a source of political strength for then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio could be shut down as part of a review of the volunteer organizations known for conducting search-and-rescue operations in the desert, transporting arrestees to jail and maintaining security at crime scenes.
A committee of community leaders appointed by Arpaio’s successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, said Friday that it has launched a review of the posse groups, which are lauded for saving taxpayers money but were criticized for serving as one of Arpaio’s political tools.
Grant Woods, the committee’s chairman, said the examination is aimed at making sure that posse volunteers have the proper training and procedures and that the groups are accountable.
“The fact that this was about public relations or good politics (for Arpaio) is something we don’t care about,” Woods said, acknowledging it’s possible some groups could be shut down. “But if it makes sense for public safety, great.”
In his 24 years in office, Arpaio relied on posse volunteers to provide free police protection at malls during the holidays, direct traffic at wreck scenes and transport to jail people who were arrested in his trademark traffic patrols that targeted immigrants.
Supporters say the volunteers free up sheriff’s deputies to focus on other aspects of police work. But critics have questioned the fitness of some posse members to perform law enforcement duties and suggested that some members joined the groups to get out of traffic tickets.
Posse members wear uniforms, drive marked patrol vehicles and can get authorized to carry guns, though not all of them can actually carry firearms. The sheriff’s office has said posse members can’t conduct criminal investigations themselves but can assist officers in such cases.
Weeks after the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, Arpaio sent posse members to patrol outside schools in the Phoenix area in a bid to guard against attacks. The patrols were welcomed by many people, but critics said the operations were a promotional effort on behalf of Arpaio.
His Cold Case Posse — which Penzone shut down shortly after taking office — was criticized for conducting a five-year investigation into the authenticity of then-President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Critics said the investigation into the debunked controversy was a shameless ploy by Arpaio to raise money from his right-wing base.
Prosecutors rejected dozens of prostitution cases from the sheriff’s office in 2004 because a half dozen sheriff’s deputies and posse members engaged in nudity and sexual contact during a prostitution sting.
This is the second examination by Penzone’s committee, which previously recommended the closure of “Tent City,” the complex of jail tents that helped make Arpaio a national law enforcement figure. The agency is in the process of closing the complex.
When campaigning to become sheriff, Penzone said he was open to keeping some posse groups. “We could not deliver top notch service without the commitment of our hundreds of posse members and their leaders,” Penzone said in a statement Friday.
The number of posse members over the years has dwindled.
At one time, Arpaio boasted his 59 posse groups had a total of 3,000 volunteers, including action-film star Steven Seagal, “The Incredible Hulk” star Lou Ferrigno and actor Peter Lupus of TV’s “Mission: Impossible.” Today, an estimated 800 members serve in 36 posses.
The groups’ operations generally don’t receive taxpayer money and instead are funded through contributions and dues paid by posse members.
Though Arpaio promised no taxpayer money would be spent on the investigation of Obama’s birth certificate, the sheriff sent a deputy to Hawaii to accompany the posse’s top investigator. The leader of the posse said it tried to pay back $9,600 for the costs of the deputy’s travel and time, but officials declined to accept the money.