If the point of a neighborhood watch is to make people feel safer, then things in Arizona seem to have gone off track.
Last week, volunteer posse members began patrolling dozens of schools in the greater Phoenix area at the direction of Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County. As many as 500 uniformed volunteers, some of them armed with automatic weapons, will be driving through the neighborhoods of 59 schools, Arpaio's office said. The patrols could continue through the remainder of the school year.
We asked HuffPost readers in Arizona how they feel about the plan. One hundred eighty-eight people told us they like the volunteer patrols. Another 394 said they believe the posses are a bad idea. That's almost 600 people who wrote in to tell us what they think -- and two-thirds of them said Arpaio's plan doesn't make them feel safer.
Arpaio first announced his intentions to have posse members keep watch over local schools in the wake of the December 14 shooting in Newtown, Conn., that claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Critics, however, were quick to denounce Arpaio's plan, pointing out that the sheriff's department has a poor relationship with the city's minority communities, and that Arpaio's posses have in the past included people with arrest records for assault and domestic violence.
A number of readers voiced concern that the posse members will single out minorities. One person wrote:
Let's hope that Arpaio doesn't use this as a pretext to harrass Latino kids in school, in his quest to root out 'illegals.'
Another reader, this one from Phoenix, told us:
The sheriff has already spread fear among Latino immigrants and citizens because of his racially profiling 'sweeps.'
And a third reader told us, bluntly:
Sheriff Joe hates people with brown skin, and his 'volunteers' are likely to act similarly.
Another recurring theme in readers' letters was the question of how capable the volunteers would prove in a crisis. A reader from Tucson, perhaps thinking of the armed guard at Columbine High School in 1999, told us:
It is difficult enough for well-trained peace officers to make the right choice in the heat of the moment.
Another reader said:
Most of us in AZ see the posse as retired wannabe gunslingers.
And from a reader in Pima County:
I feel innocent people will be hurt or killed. I wouldn't want [the volunteers] patrolling my neighborhood.
Some people expressed doubts about the character of the posse members. One reader called them "a rather seedy bunch of people" and "a bunch of thugs who refuse to respect the Constitution." Another reader offered a sarcastic take on the volunteers:
Fortunately they have nothing else to do with their time, given that they are not gainfully employed or are so old they have been retired from gainful employment. These are just the kind of candidates I want patrolling our school with loaded weapons.
A third reader echoed these sentiments, saying:
Those 'who can' in law enforcement in our state go to work for the Department of Public Safety. Those with lesser skills go to work for the various city police departments in Maricopa County. And those who can't get a job anywhere go to work for Sheriff Joe.
According to the Associated Press, members of Arpaio's posses can get authorization to carry a gun after they complete training. As many as 100 of the school patrol volunteers will reportedly have undergone the same training as actual police officers.
Several readers told us that they felt the volunteer posses would contribute to a climate of fear in Phoenix. One person told us:
I normally respect and admire Sheriff Joe, but I don't like this. Is it going to be obvious who these armed guards are? It sounds like something out of the Middle East where the military go around with their guns everywhere.
Another reader said:
I would much, much prefer non-gun related deterrents and safety measures where my twin 10 year-olds attend school. I don't like the message it sends to the children about school being a fortified institution surrounded by armed guards.
Other people said that while students might benefit from having an armed authority figure in schools, it would be better if that person was there constantly, and could become part of the school environment. One former teacher wrote to say:
For years, a School Resource Officer (SRO) was stationed at the high school where I taught. I saw him every day, and so did the kids. He taught a lesson every year in my class during our study of detective stories.
Then one day, he was gone. Funding was cut. Gone was his ability to instantly contact emergency services with the reach of his radio. More importantly, gone were the relationships that he had built with the students. When trouble was about to go down, as it often did, he was among the first to know when students sought him out. In his place is Sheriff Joe's ignorant and ruthless posse.
A lot of people wrote in simply to call Arpaio names, which isn't the same as making a policy argument, but offers its own kind of window onto public opinion. One person wrote: "Arpaio is a lunatic, a racist, and a fascist," Another said: "Sheriff Joe is crazy." A third: "Batshit crazy with dementia." A fourth: "He is one scary individual!"
And many, many readers accused Arpaio of caring more about publicity than public safety, citing the sheriff's record of outlandish policies like housing inmates in tents and forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear. In the words of one reader:
He is egocentric and responds for headlines.
[The patrols are] yet another media stunt from the world's costliest sheriff. Arizona has one of the worst records on education funding, and now we're going to pretend that we care about schools? [ed. note: Arizona ranked first in the station in state funding cuts to schools between 2008 and 2012, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.]
And a third speculated:
Arming volunteers is simply another scheme to get national publicity, leading to lucrative speaking engagements nationwide, as well as financial support for [Arpaio's] next run for sheriff in four years.
But many of the readers who defended the patrols were just as impassioned. More than a few people told us they're in favor of Arpaio's plan even though their politics may not usually match the sheriff's:
As a Liberal Independent, sometime Democrat, I'd much rather see the guards around schools than the drug dealers and gang members who hang around outside now.
Another reader said:
More often than not I disagree with Arpiao. But this is proper.
A large number of readers said they believed Arpaio's volunteers would make an effective deterrent, or be able to stop a crime while it was in progress. One reader wrote:
This action on [Arpaio's] part just might save a very precious life.
A person from Tucson told us:
My wife is an elementary school teacher, and I would certainly feel more comfortable with armed personnel at her school.
And a third reader said:
I am a teacher, and I like the idea of Sheriff Joe patrolling and making sure that our schools are safe.
Some readers framed the issue as one of social privilege, asking why Phoenix students should be denied the same protection that the children of public figures get (an argument the National Rife Association nodded toward in a recent ad).
It's okay to protect the rich and famous, our president and elected Congressional personnel and their families [with armed guards], but it's not okay for Sheriff Joe to protect our children?
Still, many of those who said they support the patrol program were quick to call it an imperfect solution. In the words of one reader:
I guess at least it's an attempt to do something, which is a step. Not wild about it, though.
I do believe it may be a deterrent of sorts to some who are not hardcore. To the decided who already have nothing to lose, it is just a challenge to prove it can be done.
It's better than nothing. But it's not what I prefer.
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