PHOENIX (AP) — An insurance pool that covers sheriff's volunteers in 11 of Arizona's 15 counties is changing its policies to exclude an armed volunteer posse that the state's second most famous sheriff plans to deploy to scan the desert for smugglers.
Following legal warnings from alarmed underwriters, the Arizona Counties Insurance Pool decided not to provide liability coverage for the posse that Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu announced earlier this month because it's too risky, said Bill Hardy, the pool's executive director.
"There is not a county that has a posse like Sheriff Babeu's proposed Anti-Smuggling Posse," Hardy told the Arizona Republic for a Wednesday story. "Normal posse activities include neighborhood-watch patrols, welfare checks — in other words, an extra set of eyes in the neighborhood. Additionally, they provide traffic control at accident and crime sites."
Hardy said the insurance pool has never had a problem with those types of posses.
"However, we do not think it's good risk management to put a group of gentlemen with weapons out in the desert at night, becoming involved in human- and drug-smuggling enforcement efforts," he said.
Babeu announced the formation of the Anti-Smuggling Posse on Oct. 10 to help in western areas of the vast county — between Phoenix and Tucson — where drug- and human smuggling is a persistent problem. The posse is separate from his department's other posses, whose members assist patrol deputies and participate in search-and-rescue operations.
Members of the all-volunteer posse will be issued semi-automatic rifles but will not patrol or make arrests. Their main focus is surveillance and intelligence gathering at the direction of a multijurisdictional SWAT team led by the Sheriff's Office. The size of the posse has not been disclosed, but it will recruit former military members and people with law-enforcement backgrounds.
It's unclear if any members have been chosen. The Sheriff's Office wouldn't clarify the new posse's function or outline its activities to date.
Arizona law gives elected sheriffs the ability to request the aid of volunteer posse and reserve organizations. A sheriff also may authorize members of the sheriff's volunteer posse to carry firearms if they have received firearms training approved by the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board.
Tim Gaffney, Babeu's spokesman, said Wednesday the insurance pool had agreed to cover the posse once it learned a deputy would be along with its members on assignment.
But Hardy disagreed. "They may see it a different way. I'm standing by what I said in the paper."
The Arizona Counties Insurance Pool policy insures volunteers assisting in government business, including those engaged in law-enforcement activities. The cooperative is governed by a board of trustees composed of representatives from each member county. It does not include Maricopa, Pima, Yuma and Coconino counties, which are self-insured.
Maricopa County has a similar insurance policy. Cari Gerchick, county communications director, said she doubted that liability coverage would ever be restricted for the Maricopa County sheriff's posse.
"Frankly, you've got a statute that authorizes them to act as long as they have a sheriff's officer with them or are under their supervision," Gerchick said. "I don't see us meddling in what is appropriate law enforcement, but different counties operate differently."
Babeu, a Republican seeking re-election, is known for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration and border security. He announced he was running for Congress in January but withdrew from the race months later after he was forced to admit he is gay amid allegations of misconduct made by a man with whom he previously had a relationship. Babeu has denied the man's allegations.
The conservative sheriff most recently made headlines after critics claimed he was too quick to blame drug smugglers for the deaths of five people found in a burned-out SUV in June, after evidence surfaced suggesting another theory. The conservative sheriff maintained he was merely sharing timely information about the case and never formally concluded the deaths were the work of a cartel.