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Former Arizona AG: MCSO posses do positive things but pose problems

FILE - In this Jan. 9, 2013, file photo, parents from Anthem Elementary School stand with then Maricopa County Sheriffs Deputies and posse members, as they listen to Arpaio speak at Anthem Elementary School in Phoenix. A committee of community leaders appointed by Arpaio's successor, Sheriff Paul Penzone, said Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, 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.

LISTEN: Grant Woods, Former Arizona Attorney General

PHOENIX — Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office volunteer posses have been around since former sheriff Joe Arpaio started them when he first took office after a series of violent carjackings near malls.

Sheriff Paul Penzone asked an oversight board to review the use of the posses, who began last week.

One member of the review board is former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods. He told Mac & Gaydos on KTAR News 92.3 FM Tuesday that the posses are great in many areas, but bring a lot of problems.

“Overall they kind of do a wide variety of things and some of them are very positive, and we’ve already heard about that,” Woods said. “For example, volunteer posse members help patrol the lake and the Salt River, and that’s great. It’d cost the taxpayers a lot more money if we didn’t have those people handling that. There’s a whole group of posse members with their own vehicles, with their own jeeps to do search and rescue. And they’re trained in search and rescue and they’re out there helping when we’re looking for a hiker or a missing person of some sort.

“There are a lot of posse members who have been allowed to purchase their own vehicles, have them tricked out with lights and sirens, they’re marked so they look like sheriff’s vehicles. These guys walk around wearing uniforms that look like sheriff’s office uniforms, they have badges, there’s several hundred who when they’re with their cars, uniforms, badges, they carry guns.”

Woods said there are over 800 members organized in 36 different posses. Although each of the groups handle its own financing, each group also carries its own rules and regulations.

“I think that cries out for an examination,” Woods said. “Do we really need 36 different groups doing things? So, we’ll look at that.”

Posses have volunteered their time in the past to help with crowd control, and recently helped patrol malls to discourage shoplifters.

The fact that some are allowed to almost impersonate law enforcement professionals and carry guns while doing so worries Woods.

“I got a problem with that,” he said. “Just on the surface I’ll just say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I understand that — and we’ll learn more about this — understand that sometimes posse members with weapons are serving search warrants, so they might be knocking down your door. I don’t know about that. Is that appropriate? I think we need to figure out whether that’s appropriate.”

Woods said the SPEAR board, which is a 12-person group who recommended the closure of Tent City earlier this year, will hear from opposers and advocates of posses soon.

One thing he admitted right away was his wariness to the fact volunteers are knocking down doors at all, and how people who haven’t been officially trained are needing weapons on the job in the first place.

“There’s so many good things that they can do, but we need to keep a bright line here between what trained law enforcement officers are allowed to do, and what volunteers are allowed to do,” Woods said. “And that’s for the safety of the public, that’s for the safety of the officers who might be in the same car with one of these guys or be right next to him. I’ll have to be persuaded that you need volunteers to knock down doors or to do anything like that, that doesn’t make sense to me.”

Many people might automatically associate the posses to Arpaio since he started them years ago. Woods said that doesn’t concern him at all, and doesn’t think “anyone cares about that.”

“I mean he’s gone. So if it serves the public and it’s a good thing, great. Let’s keep it and try to make it better,” Woods said.

Woods said the goal of the SPEAR board is to “make sure there’s total accountability” when it comes to the MCSO and volunteer posses, and said “they can provide a real public service.”

It isn’t about eliminating the program. It’s about making the program better.

“We want to make sure that it’s organized correctly, for whatever people are doing, that they’re properly trained, that we’re leaving the dangerous part of law enforcement to the people who are certified police officers and that the finances are all in order,” Woods said. “If we can do that, then we can make solid recommendations to the sheriff and the posse will go on. I just think that it will be a top notch 2017 version free of the problems we’ve discussed.”

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