Pinal County Sheriff Chris Vasquez acknowledges the agency he has run since 2005 has had its problems in the last few years.
The department is chronically understaffed. Deputies lack equipment that has become standard in other police agencies. The office has been accused of harassment by one local restaurant owner, and Vasquez himself has had to contend with headlines about his plagiarism and use of county e-mail accounts for campaign purposes.
But Vasquez said he is working to improve the agency as he battles with a money crunch that has prevented him from hiring more deputies or moving as quickly as he'd like on plans to put computers in squad cars.
"In 2001, our staffing level of sworn deputies was the same as it was in 1977, and we've been playing catch-up ever since to try to catch up with the humongous growth that this county experienced," said Vasquez, a Democrat who is up for re-election Tuesday.
Since he was appointed sheriff in 2005, Vasquez said he has added 61 sworn positions to the department, yet claims he still needs 175 more officers. He also created a fourth patrol region and a victim services volunteer group, and upgraded a command center, according to his election Web site.
But Vasquez said the sheriff's office is not immune from the failing economy. Until last year, the Board of Supervisors, which sets his budget, had been "pretty responsive" to his requests for more deputies, Vasquez said. He still plans to push the board to hire more deputies if he is re-elected.
"We need about 175 more deputies in Pinal County to get the job done, to get where we need to be," Vasquez said. "When you start getting employee burnout and fatigue setting in, then someone's going to get hurt.
"When you only have a limited number of deputies, you only stretch so far. It's at a point where (the Board of Supervisors) needs to get the relief in there."
HISTORY OF INNOVATION
Vasquez grew up in Eloy and served two tours of duty in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He returned to Pinal County and became a Casa Grande police officer, retiring in 1996.
Vasquez said he helped bring innovative approaches to crime fighting as a Casa Grande officer. When he became a lieutenant, Casa Grande had the highest per-capita crime rate in Arizona, he said. Vasquez launched several initiatives such as block watch programs and Citizens on Patrol efforts. He also encouraged businesses to use company radios to report suspicious activity in the days before cell phones were popular.
The result was that Casa Grande still had the highest per-capita crime rate, Vasquez said. But it also had the largest reduction in crime compared with other cities, he said.
After his retirement, Vasquez became a bureau commander in the Pinal County Sheriff's Office under then-Sheriff Roger Vanderpool. Less than two years later, he was promoted to chief deputy. Vasquez was appointed to replace Vanderpool when the sheriff was named director of the state Department of Public Safety.
Vasquez hopes to modernize the department by advancing computer technology, deputy equipment and crime programs.
His Republican opponent, Paul Babeu, has trashed Vasquez for not updating the deputy computer system in patrol cruisers during his time as sheriff. Vasquez said the county needed time to catch up with connection technology. Vasquez said 40 to 50 percent of cell phone towers, which are required for computer use, did not have strong signals in Pinal County in 2001. Vasquez explained that even though the signals were vastly improved over the years, the department could not simply equip the vehicle with computers because of the cost.
Most Arizona police departments use cell phone connection services for vehicle laptops.
Vasquez's plan involves "staggered" computer upgrades for the patrol units - meaning each year a new set of vehicles would get the most recent computer updates. Further upgrades of those units would then be delayed for several years. Without staggering the updates, Vasquez said equipping all of the vehicles with computers at once would cost more than $2 million.
That process of putting computers in patrol cars began last year, Vasquez said.
While working on the computer shortage, Vasquez has also focused on a new program called the Crime Free Multi-Housing Program. With this policy, a landlord renting a home has the right to give a 24-hour eviction notice to renters if they commit a certain crime, such as drug dealing or committing domestic abuse.
Vasquez hopes this will deter human smuggling rings and drop houses in Pinal County.
CITIZENS ON PATROL
The sheriff also has high hopes for his Citizens on Patrol program, which he helped to create in 2006. He said the operation has been successful.
But former Gold Canyon Citizens on Patrol community coordinator Janice Cunningham said delayed training, poor communication and slow response times have driven the program to its lowest level. The program lost some of its best volunteers to the internal struggle between the members and the department, Cunningham said.
"We're having difficulty with the sheriff responding to things," she said. An e-mail request for a meeting to discuss concerns with the sheriff sent in August remains unanswered, Cunningham said. Since Vasquez has been in office, the program has lost two community coordinators and numerous volunteers due to the problems, she said.
Vasquez has raised less money than Babeu, but had more cash on hand by Oct. 15, according to a campaign finance report. In total, Vasquez raised $46,652.68 for his campaign, while Babeu raised $56,281.69. In the two weeks leading up to the election, Babeu has $2,288.11 on hand, and Vasquez has close to $12,713.34.