The suspect who gunned down two Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies in the East Valley last month should feel the full weight of the law. Nothing should mitigate the culpability of those who pull the trigger on law enforcement officers performing their public-safety duties.
That being said, it is incumbent upon leaders of law enforcement agencies to reassess policies and procedures whenever officers fall in the line of duty. And as an investigation by the Tribune’s Mark Flatten has revealed, there is plenty about this case that warrants serious reassessment by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his top officers.
Deputies Sean Pearce and Lew Argetsinger, members of the sheriff’s SWAT team, were wounded Dec. 16 while serving a search warrant related to a homicide case. Jorge Luis Guerra Vargas, who was wounded in the gunfight, was taken into custody and subsequently indicted on seven counts of aggravated assault.
Both Pearce and Argetsinger made clear to Flatten that they blame no one but the suspect for their injuries. But they were also frank with Flatten about recent changes in the SWAT team ordered by department brass that may have compromised safety and effectiveness.
Arpaio and his top echelon owe it to Pearce, Argetsinger and all SWAT team members who regularly go into harm’s way to protect the public to take their concerns seriously.
Chief among those concerns are the removal before the raid of two experienced commanders, a drastic reduction in training time, and the replacement of several experienced support team members with inexperienced deputies.
Sheriff’s Office officials told Flatten the changes were made to get SWAT team members on street duty while they were not performing SWAT operations. That is all well and good. Making sure street beats are adequately covered is fundamental to public safety. But so is ensuring that special tactical units such as SWAT teams aren’t compromised in the process.
It may indeed be true, as sheriff’s officials told Flatten, that the department cannot afford a full-time SWAT team. That is the kind of question that Arpaio, as the county’s duly elected sheriff, is empowered to answer.
But it’s fair to question whether a part-time SWAT team — given the intrinsically dangerous nature of the job, as well as the nearly tragic outcome of this incident — is a viable option.
The National Tactical Officers Association recommends that a full-time SWAT team spend 25 percent of its time training. Yet sheriff’s SWAT members who’d been training two days a week were now to train only two days a month. Pearce and Argetsinger said that just wasn’t sufficient to maintain the proficiency they need in the kinds of high-risk operations they perform.
Full-time SWAT teams operated by major Valley police departments as well as the Arizona Department Public Safety may be sufficient to handle all of the dangerous assignments that crop up throughout our growing metro area. This would be a good time for the heads of those agencies to get together to ensure not only that there are enough teams, but also that training, command structure and cooperation among agencies is the best it can be.
Both the public and officers who, like Pearce and Argetsinger, may find themselves in the line of fire while performing one of the most hazardous jobs in law enforcement deserve nothing less.