The dismantling of the Maricopa County sheriff’s SWAT team has left the Arizona Department of Public Safety to handle all high-risk raids on methamphetamine labs carried out by a special narcotics task force.
In the past, DPS and Maricopa County sheriff ’s SWAT teams had alternated calls for dangerous searches of methamphetamine labs carried out for a special task force made up of federal, state and local agencies, said Lt. Col. Norm Beasley, assistant director for criminal investigations at DPS who oversees the agency’s tactical unit.
Last month, Sheriff Joe Arpaio abruptly disbanded his department’s SWAT team. That leaves DPS with the responsibility of performing all of the raids for the methamphetamine task force, Beasley said Tuesday.
Those operations require special training and equipment to deal with the chemicals and explosive agents typical in sophisticated labs, he said.
Beasley said DPS has been able to handle the additional workload since the county disbanded its team. If the need arises, DPS can bring in additional SWAT officers from its Tucson detail, or ask for assistance from SWAT teams in Mesa, Phoenix and Glendale that also have special training for raiding methamphetamine labs, he said.
"Obviously it does mean more work for us, but quite frankly we view that as part of our role," Beasley said. "If we get to the point where our teams cannot do the job, we would either call in one of our satellite teams or call one of the other Valley law enforcement agencies to pick up the slack."
Last year, the DPS SWAT teams assisted in securing 59 methamphetamine labs throughout the state, about half of their 124 deployments, Beasley said.
He did not have figures for Maricopa County.
Aside from calls from the narcotics task force, DPS has deployed its SWAT team three times to handle calls for assistance from the sheriff’s office since its unit was disbanded, Beasley said.
The Tribune reported Tuesday that Arpaio transferred the top two commanders out of the county’s SWAT team in November, then disbanded the unit last month after two of its deputies were wounded while serving a search warrant in an unincorporated area near Mesa.
Larry Black, chief of enforcement for the sheriff’s office, said Tuesday the decision was made to have SWAT team members begin taking on patrol duties in an effort to provide better coverage and reduce response times. When SWAT members made it clear they did not want to be on the unit part-time, it was disbanded, he said.
"We set this new program out that we would be using them for patrol when we weren’t using them for SWAT, and they didn’t like that," Black said of the members of the disbanded SWAT team. "We still have that deputy first idea — you’re a deputy sheriff first and a SWAT guy second. That’s really a switch from what it was before."
A new SWAT team will be formed by the county with deputies who will also have other duties, he said, adding that it will take a few months to get the team in place.
The county’s SWAT team handled about 100 calls last year, which is not enough to justify a full-time unit.
He said other large police agencies, including Mesa, do not have full-time SWAT teams.
But Lt. Bob Gervasi, commander of the Mesa SWAT unit, said his department has had a full-time SWAT team in place since the mid-1990s, and recently added a second fulltime squad.
The sheriff’s office provides law enforcement to all county areas outside incorporated cities and towns. It also contracts to provide service to Queen Creek, Cave Creek, Guadalupe, Gila Bend and Litchfield Park.
While the new team is being formed and trained, DPS will provide SWAT teams to assist sheriff’s deputies if they are needed, Black said.
The standards for calling in a SWAT team will not change, even though the sheriff’s office will now have to turn to an outside agency to respond, Black said. For instance, sheriff ’s investigators are serving an arrest warrant on a dangerous individual with a violent history, they can still call for SWAT assistance if they believe the team is needed to protect their safety or the community, Black said.
The only difference is it will not be a county SWAT team that responds, he said.
But Keith Frakes, a former commander of the sheriff’s SWAT team who retired from the agency in April, said he is concerned that deputies might put themselves at risk because they are reluctant to call an outside agency for SWAT assistance.
"It’s not that competent help is not available," said Frakes, who spent more than 10 years on the sheriff’s SWAT team. "It’s just that over time it could become a little bit troublesome to ask for help; or the people that may come to help you are busy doing their own things. Potentially there is an impact on officer safety."