The Wild West-style posses that helped make Sheriff Joe Arpaio famous early in his career will be greatly diminished if the U.S. Justice Department has its way.
According to a draft of the agreement that the DOJ spent months trying to strike with the Arizona lawman, the posses he’s used in everything from photo ops to crime crackdowns would be banned from getting anywhere near immigration enforcement.
Although talks appear to have broken down and the Justice Department has indicated it will file a civil rights lawsuit against Arpaio’s department, the 123-page draft of the agreement obtained by TPM provides a window into what types of things the feds want to stop cold.
Dated Feb. 26, the draft would have banned the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from using posses in the human smuggling unit, in its criminal employment squad and during immigration-related criminal suppression operations.
Arpaio would also be required to provide posse members “with the training and support necessary to ensure they are productive members of an effective and constitutional police force” and train them in bias-free policing. Arpaio would have been required to develop standards for the posse members and would have to discontinue operation of his immigration posses, prohibit the participation of posse members in crime suppression operations, workplace raids and immigration-related law enforcement activities.
Volunteers would have had to work under the direct supervision of sheriff’s deputies and would have been required to report any misconduct to their supervisors under the agreement. The presumptive penalty for failing to report misconduct, the agreement said, would be loss of posse privileges.
Posse members would also be banned from carrying weapons while working for or with Arapio unless they were “fully trained in use of force and fully qualified to use any weapons to be carried or used.”
Uniforms worn by posse members would have to be “clearly distinguishable” from the uniforms worn by sworn deputies and their vehicles distinguishable from official sheriff’s vehicles. They would have to memorialize their activity in a volunteer log at the end of each shift and would be evaluated on a bi-annual basis by their supervisor.
Posses have long been a part of Arpaio’s Wild West lawman shtick, although the program was in place before he took office. Under Arpaio, the volunteer program has helped make him a celebrity. Former Arizona Gov. Fife Symington (R) was once a member of the sheriff’s “executive posse.” In 2006, basketball star Shaquille O’Neal was made an honorary deputy and given command of his own posse. Two years ago, Arpaio also named “Hulk” actor Lou Ferrigno and action star Steven Seagal as members of an immigration posse.
More recently, the sheriff made headlines by sending his Cold Case Posse to investigate President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. The posse came back with what it said was evidence the document was a fake, essentially buying into a fringe conspiracy theory that was already thoroughly debunked.
These days, the sheriff lists more than 60 separate posses under his command. According to the sheriff’s website, applicants must be 18 years old, be U.S. citizens and pass background checks to join, among other requirements.
Beyond the gimmick, though, the volunteer groups often have a serious role. The sheriff’s office lists about two dozen search and rescue posses, which from time to time make the local news for finding a stranded hiker in the desert or pulling someone from danger.
Even so, the groups have had their critics for as long as Arpaio has been in power. Though some of the volunteers are retired or former cops, many had no law enforcement experience or training before joining. Given a badge and a uniform and allowed to carry a gun, they are then are asked to assist in real life law enforcement.
In 1995, the Houston Chronicle went to Phoenix to take a closer look at the program. The newspaper talked to people even then who said the posses were more of a photo op than anything that could really stop crime.
The role of the posse has been crucial as Arpaio faces more scrutiny over his enforcement of immigration law. The volunteer members have been helping sworn deputies arrest immigrants since the sheriff began his crackdown. That came into play in 2008 as part of the East Valley Tribune’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that showed how Arpaio’s office focused on immigration more than it did on serious crimes like rapes and assaults.
“I have a volunteer posse out there along with my deputies,” Arpaio said at the time. “We’re proactive, and we’re going to arrest illegals and the smugglers that come into this county.”
If the Justice Department has its way, the posses’ role in immigration may become a thing of the past.