The office of county sheriff in Arizona dates back to territorial days when the sheriff was the only law. When Arizona became a state 100 years ago the office of sheriff was spelled out in the state Constitution.
Now it takes over 600 words in Arizona Revised Statutes to describe the sheriff’s duties and powers.
Besides enforcing the law, sheriffs are required to run the county jail, serve the papers of the Superior Court and the list goes on and on.
While some sheriffs only have a handful of deputies and small jail, in Maricopa County the sheriff employs close to 4,000 employees and oversees a budget that’s approaching $300 million dollars. The county jail is bigger than some state prisons.
A sheriff has to be a lawman, prison warden and an accomplished financial manager to effectively run his office.
Yet in Arizona the only requirement to be one of the state’s most powerful Constitutional officers with vast responsibilities that impact the safety of county residents is that one be a legal voter and reside in the county where they want to be sheriff.
A sheriff doesn’t even have to meet the basic requirements that are demanded of applicants in Arizona to be a city, county or state law enforcement officer.
No job application to ensure they meet minimum standards, no written test to establish a basic level of intelligence, no background investigation to determine honesty, character and integrity, no criminal history checks, no polygraph to determine truthfulness and no psychological examination to determine if one is fit to have powers over another person’s life and freedom.
And once elected, sheriffs aren’t given evaluations and determinations aren’t made to see if a sheriff is meeting accepted professional goals and meeting the standards of performance expected of other county employees.
An Arizona sheriff doesn’t even have to have law enforcement experience or be certified as a peace officer by the Arizona Peace Officers and Standards and Training Board.
California and Colorado have training and experience standards for county sheriffs.
The level of experience for Arizona sheriffs has run the gambit. From career deputy sheriffs who work their way up through the ranks to ex-rookie police officers and even a former lawn mower repairman. We’ve had all kinds of sheriffs over the years. Some good, some bad, some embarrassing. A fair share of goof-balls and crooks have worn a sheriff’s star.
While much is made of the sheriff being elected and answering to the people, the people only get a chance every four years to replace the sitting sheriff should they prove to be corrupt, incompetent, inept or embarrassing to the agency and deputies they lead.
Take for instance the recent case of Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu posing in his underwear and splashing his soap opera-like lifestyle all over the Internet. Or Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s misappropriating $100 million dollars. Were these two answerable to an elected oversight body like a city council or county board of supervisors, do you really think they’d still have a job?
Recent reports about failures by both the Maricopa County and Pinal County sheriff’s offices to adequately investigate hundreds of sex crimes would’ve certainly resulted is serious punitive action if Arpaio and Babeu were hired and fired like their deputies.
Examples of poor judgment, fiscal mismanagement and a lack of leadership when it comes to investigating serious crime only reinforces the need to examine if changes are in order for how the person in charge of countywide law enforcement is selected and retained.
Whether it’s time to impose certification, training, experience, performance and accountability standards on sheriffs like those imposed on the heads of other law enforcement agencies, or if it’s time to appoint sheriffs like police chiefs, it’s time for change.
While many laugh at the theatrics and antics of Sheriffs Babeu and Arpaio, the joke is on us.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.