The Maricopa County sheriff’s SWAT team was abruptly disbanded shortly after two of its officers were shot serving a high-risk search warrant in a murder investigation, the Tribune has learned.
In the weeks before the raid, the unit’s top two commanders were reassigned without explanation, replaced by supervisors from outside the elite unit.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the transfers are part of a routine reorganization of his office, implemented shortly after the Nov. 2 general election. In all, about 300 employees in the sheriff’s office, including command staff, sworn officers and detention officers, are being moved as part of the reorganization.
On Monday, Arpaio denied concerns, raised by former sheriff’s officers, including the head of one police union, that the transfers were political retaliation against those who supported his opponents in the Republican primary and general elections.
The 12 members of the fulltime SWAT team are being reassigned to other duties, Arpaio said.
The SWAT unit will be rebuilt with other officers who will also perform patrol duties, he said.
In the interim, the sheriff’s office will rely on the Arizona Department of Public Safety and other local police agencies that have active SWAT teams to respond to incidents such as barricades or hostage situations, he said.
The revamping of the SWAT team is being questioned both within the department and by officers outside the sheriff’s office.
"I hate to see it come to an end," said Deputy Sean Pearce, one of two SWAT team members shot while serving the warrant in Mesa on Dec. 16. "You are talking years and years of experience among the guys who were transferred. Thousands of dollars were put into training us and getting us up to the standards that we were at. I hate to see it happen. Nobody has given us an answer as to why."
Pearce, son of state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, accompanied his father on the floor of the state House of Representatives Monday for the opening day of the legislative session.
Both he and his father supported Dan Saban, a former Mesa police officer, in Saban’s unsuccessful bid to oust Arpaio in the Republican primary last year.
The departmentwide reorganization was announced shortly after the election, and the transfers were effective Nov. 22, according to documents obtained by the Tribune.
Capt. Phillip Babb, who had been the captain in charge of the SWAT team, was reassigned to the general investigations unit.
He was replaced by Capt. Joel Fox, who served briefly on the SWAT team in a part-time capacity in the 1990s.
The team’s front-line commander, Lt. Michael Mitchell, was reassigned to the training unit. He was replaced by Lt. Dave Trombi, the sheriff ’s former public information officer who has no SWAT experience.
Both Babb and Mitchell had come up through the ranks of the SWAT team.
They were well-respected by other SWAT officers in the Valley who were contacted Monday.
Babb, who was the captain in charge of the SWAT team for six years, said Monday he was not told why he was being transferred, other than that there was a reorganization in the agency.
Fox and Trombi were in place as the SWAT team’s new commanders on the morning of Dec. 16, when Sean Pearce and Deputy Lew Argetsinger were shot during the police operation in east Mesa.
Pearce was shot in the abdomen and Argetsinger in the hand. The suspect was wounded by another deputy.
Arpaio said the tactical decisions made the night the deputies were shot came from experienced SWAT team members, not the new supervisors.
Pearce said he has not been told where he will be assigned when he returns to duty.
The other members of the SWAT team have already been reassigned.
Arpaio said the agency’s reorganization was planned long before the election, but that he waited until mid-November to finalize the shake-up.
If he had lost, it would not have been fair to hand his successor a newly reorganized agency, Arpaio said.
Deputies are being recruited for the new team, which will resume taking assignments after its members are trained, Arpaio said.
"It’s time to get some fresh blood in there, to give other deputies a chance to be on the team," Arpaio said. "We’re trying to get more deputies on the streets, so our new deputies will be doing other jobs, too, including patrol, to help our response times."
Arpaio’s decision to scrap the existing team was slammed by experienced SWAT commanders, including the former head of the unit. Keith Frakes, who spent more than 10 years on the team before retiring from the agency as a captain in April, said the sweeping changes Arpaio has instituted since the election smack of politics.
"When you look at a lot of these transfers, they weren’t done for the good of the office," Frakes said of the departmentwide changes. "They were punitive in nature. They were rewarding people who they felt were supportive and punishing those that they think weren’t. I think they kind of lumped the whole SWAT team into that a little bit."
Chris Gerberry, president of the Maricopa County Deputies’ Association, also said the departmentwide transfers show a pattern of rewarding Arpaio’s political supporters with choice assignments.
The county’s SWAT team has built a national reputation, and its members frequently trained officers from across the country, Frakes said.
While it would not be unusual to change commanders or officers on the SWAT team one or two at a time, disbanding the entire unit robs the agency of the expertise and experience that would be valuable in training new members, Frakes said.
"That is an unprecedented move and it’s clearly indicative of a bigger problem," Frakes said. "It’s a travesty. It’s a travesty from all of the things that have been invested over the years. And you’ve got citizens that were robbed of a potential response capability that could have been brought to bear to help them."
Ron McCarthy, a former Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team supervisor and now a consultant on special police teams, said disbanding an experienced SWAT team with the national reputation that the county’s unit had "is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard."
Aside from classroom training, it takes years of experience to hone the skills necessary to serve effectively on a SWAT team, McCarthy said. Replacing the entire team without reason amounts to squandering the time and money spent on their training, he said.
"If he (Arpaio) has made the decision to disband the SWAT team and put in newer, younger people, that’s dumb," McCarthy said. "They’re making a mistake."
Lt. Bob Gervasi, commander of the Mesa SWAT unit, said he and other Valley SWAT supervisors were surprised when they were told the entire sheriff’s unit was being reassigned. Like McCarthy, Gervasi said it takes years to fully train a SWAT team member.
Disbanding the sheriff’s SWAT team will not compromise public safety because other agencies will respond when called, Gervasi said.
Officer Frank Valenzuela, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said the state agency’s SWAT team has always responded when other agencies call for help.
DPS’ SWAT officers often assisted the sheriff’s team in the past, and will be able to handle calls from the office, Valenzuela said.
DPS has one full-time SWAT unit in the Valley and another part-time unit, Valenzuela said.