It may take a while for Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies to get to you, but if you’re the victim of a violent crime, robbery or theft, your case stands a fair chance of getting solved.
However, if your car is stolen or your winter home is burglarized, you may be out of luck.
Somewhat overshadowed in the campaign for Maricopa County sheriff, in which Arpaio faces two challengers, is the actual law-enforcement end of the agency’s work. The county’s daunting jail management issues often tend to capture much of the attention. The sheriff’s office is responsible for a massive county area not policed by local agencies — including unincorporated areas of the East Valley and several smaller towns that contract for law enforcement services.
Statistics show that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office solved nearly 18 percent of its major crimes in 2002 — the last year for which FBI statistics were available. Nationally, law enforcement officers solved 20 percent of major crimes that year. Major crimes include homicides, rapes, robberies, thefts, aggravated assaults, motor vehicle thefts and burglaries.
But while the sheriff’s office does well in making homicide, rape and robbery arrests, which improves their overall clearance rate, their "solved rates" in burglaries and motor vehicle thefts fall short of the national average.
Nationally, law enforcement officers made arrests in 14 percent of car thefts and 13 percent of burglaries in 2002. Maricopa County detectives solved 8 percent of car thefts in 2002 and just over 4 percent of their burglary cases.
According to statistics, it also takes deputies an average of 7 minutes, 14 seconds to get to life-threatening calls, panic alarms or crimes in progress. It takes even longer for them to get to less pressing calls, such as car thefts and burglaries.
The clearance rate for car thefts and burglaries and response times in general are the unfortunate byproducts of geography, Arpaio said.
Many of the vehicles stolen end up in Mexico or the area’s American Indian reservations, making arrests problematic, Arpaio said. And, deputies have greater distances to cover than the average police officer. They cover 7,500 of the county’s 9,200 square miles.
Sheriff candidate W. Steve Martin, an independent, believes surprise roadblocks near Ajo and Gila Bend would discourage car thieves from making their way to the border. All drivers could be asked for driver’s licenses, proof of insurance and vehicle identification numbers to ensure they aren’t driving stolen vehicles.
The roadblocks could be manned by posse members, Martin said.
"The deputies out there are doing a great job with the numbers out there, but the bottom line is there aren’t enough of them," Martin said.
Not only aren’t there enough deputies on the streets, but they’ve been misdirected, said Democratic challenger Bob Ayala.
"Sheriff Arpaio spends resources, manpower, on trying to do prostitution stings, which isn’t a priority in my eyes," Ayala said. "To me, with all the things he does, his priority is publicity. He just wants his name in the paper."
The number of cars stolen in the sheriff ’s jurisdiction rose to 1,230 in 2002 from 864 in 2000.
Arpaio said he has tried to combat the problem by organizing frequent "blitzes" of such communities as Sun Lakes with posse members. He has also invested in bait vehicles specially equipped with technology that allows law officers to monitor and control them.
As for burglaries, many of the victims are winter residents who don’t discover their homes have been broken into for months, said Larry Black, District 1 division commander.
"When the suspects have two to three months lead time, it makes it difficult," Black said.
While the number of people living within the county’s jurisdiction increased to 277,640 last year from 241,965 in 2000, sheriff’s office statistics show the number of deputies increased by 21 to 500 during the same time frame.
The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved 42 new positions this year which translates into 15 more deputies in the East Valley, Black said.
Arpaio said he hopes to continue adding deputies, but points out it’s the supervisors who ultimately dictate how many positions the sheriff’s office can have. Thankfully, he said, he has been able to raise beginning deputy pay to $40,079 from $27,000.
The salaries may have increased, but not nearly enough, Martin countered.
"They’re being offered much better packages elsewhere," Martin said. "We spend $25,000 to $40,000 training them and then they leave. We lose them as quickly as we can train them."
The lack of deputies, combined with the vastness of the county, has resulted in slower re sponse times, Black admitted. He hopes, however, the new deputies will help bring down the numbers, he said.
Black also stressed that the sheriff ’s office’s response times includes the time it takes dispatchers to take the information from the caller and relay it to deputies, Black said. Some agencies have lower response times because they only start counting once the call is dispatched.
"The goal is always to get to five minutes or below, but given our rural response, it’s not always possible," Black said. "Rural law enforcement agencies have different issues. We have a lot of pockets we respond to that are surrounded by municipalities we have to drive through to get there."
There are also communities, such as Sun Flower, that are located 30 miles away from any other populated areas, Black said.
The sheriff’s office needs to have more deputies living in the outlying areas, Ayala said.
"If you go out toward Aguila or Wickenburg, the response times go up even more," Ayala said.
Arpaio said he has $47 million to spend annually on law enforcement.
"All and all, I think we’re very cost-effective," Arpaio said. "I’m proud of them."