The self-described “Toughest Sheriff in America” raced off to a hospital emergency room on Monday night to comfort the family of one of his deputies, who was fighting for his life after being gunned down in a Phoenix suburb. Outside the hospital, 80-year-old Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio lamented to a local NBC news affiliate that there “seems to be quite a bit of violence out there.”
Now, Arpaio says he’s got a plan to fix it: armed volunteer “posses” that will patrol the areas around some 50 Phoenix-area schools. He’d been touting his plan just hours before his deputy was shot, during an interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan. The full plan, and the posse, will be unleashed at a press conference on Wednesday, but Arpaio, outfitted in his trademark gold gun tie clip, has been giving interviews to carefully selected broadcast journalists like Morgan. (Earlier in the segment, Morgan had interviewed Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist radio host and gun-rights advocate whose own topics have included Arpaio’s claims—using yet another “posse” of investigators—that Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud.)
Arpaio once told me he got the idea for these so-called posses from watching Western movies as a kid. He claims to have the biggest posse in the world, numbering about 3,000 volunteers, and says about 500 of them are armed, some with automatic weapons. His office won’t provide data backing these claims.
Latching his posse onto a national controversy—in this case, the gun-control debate generated by the recent slaughter of children in a Newtown, Conn., school—is a tried-and-true Arpaio technique that appears to have a clear purpose: generate worldwide press, secure more donations from loyal fans, and distract journalists and the public from ongoing allegations of civil-rights violations, wrongful deaths, mismanagement and misspending. Arpaio always denies politicking, and told Piers Morgan that by utilizing his well-trained posse he intended to take immediate action to “keep bad guys out of schools.”
But to many Latino kids in Maricopa County, Arpaio and his allies are the bad guys. And advocates fear this particular posse stunt might severely impact school attendance and further stress some students who fear their undocumented parents might get deported.
The reason: For six years, Arpaio has ordered raids of Latino neighborhoods and workplaces, and some raids were shock-and-awe extravaganzas with battalions of patrol cars, horses, helicopters and uniformed posse members. Arpaio once formed an “illegal immigration posse” to round up undocumented immigrants. (This posse included actor Steven Seagal.) As a result, many of the Hispanic kids who make up nearly half of about 693,000 students attending public schools in the Phoenix area, and their parents, are leery of anyone in a sheriff’s uniform, regardless of their intentions. And that includes posse members.
“Arpaio is seen by children as ‘El Cucuy’—the Boogey Man,” explains Salvador Reza, a Phoenix-area organizer for community groups known as Barrio Defense Committees. “He’s seen as an oppressor, a violator of human rights, a divider of families.”
“We have heard stories of kids peeing themselves during Arpaio raids,” Reza tells me. “Even American citizens are terrified of Arpaio because they think he will take away their parents. It petrifies them. They don’t want to go to school.”
In an email, Brandon Jones, a spokesman for Arpaio, said the new posse isn't intended to appeal to a "fan base," but is to serve "a local need."
"The Sheriff is starting this School Posse program in order to allow everyone to feel safe sending their kids to school," said Jones in the email. "Using the history of his Mall Patrol Posse, statistically driving down crime at the local malls, he believes this is an appropriate way to address the public's outcry for more security in and around schools." He said the final details are still being worked out, included how much the program might cost or how many people will be involved. He said some of the posse members will use their own marked cars, and others might use patrol cars if they're available.
Jones also said that the sheriff isn't "out to get" anyone in the Latino community and people shouldn't be frightened.
That’s not how José Moreno, a former undocumented immigrant who is professor of Latino Education and Policy Studies at California State University (Long Beach) and president of the board of the Anaheim City School District, sees it. He characterizes Arpaio’s posse ploy as “a backdoor way to terrorize a community.”
“The idea of armed posses going around schools is frightening in and of itself,” he says, and when posse members are dressed in sheriff uniforms and driving sheriff’s cars, children and parents can’t distinguish them from the “people who were raiding homes and neighborhoods.” When Sheriff Joe’s posse comes to town, he predicts a “huge negative psychological impact on the kids and parents.”
Cecilia Menjívar, a professor at Arizona State University and an author of a report detailing the social ramifications of the “legal violence” of immigration enforcement, says the posse presence will likely create fear and more stress in mixed-status families (in which one or more family members is undocumented) because “you can’t tell whether people are here to protect you or hurt you.” Menjívar’s report, co-authored with Leisy Abrego, notes that “Within the school, legal violence makes young people and their families fear schools as a place where family members may be detained.”
In 2008, I witnessed Arpaio’s raid of Guadalupe, a small Phoenix suburb that his office is contracted to police. There were plenty of armed and uniformed posse members helping out or looking for unauthorized immigrants to nab. At the time, Bernadette Kadel, the principal of the local Veda Frank Elementary School, told me children feared that at the end of the day they’d return home to empty houses because their parents had been whisked away by Sheriff Joe. She expected only half the students would come to school the next day, a critical time for end-of-year testing.
This same school will now likely be “protected” by the sheriff’s posse. Monica Allread, a spokeswoman for the Tempe Elementary School District, told me student flashbacks, anxiety and trauma stemming from the earlier Guadalupe raid “didn’t cross our mind” because this time Arpaio’s posse was intended to “protect kids.”
Arpaio’s spokesman, Brandon Jones, said Guadalupe is an area the sheriff's department is contracted to patrol and it does so "every day and night."
Arpaio has been sheriff for 20 years, and in addition to forming posses and raiding immigrant neighborhoods, his widely-publicized programs have included forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and to sleep in tents. (Recently, during a particularly cold night, one elderly inmate died in his alfresco bunk.) Although Arpaio’s popularity is waning in Arizona, out-of-state donations from fans helped him ride a wave of victory to his sixth term in November. He says he’ll run again when he’s 84.