Facing reelection, Sheriff Paul Penzone threatens fallout from 'defund police' calls
Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone is passionate about not defunding law enforcement while acknowledging that law enforcement agencies could improve how they serve the communities they’re sworn to protect.
“I have serious concerns when I hear statements to defund police,” Penzone said. “We live in a nation where there are laws intended to protect people — to include the community — protect everyone from people acting in a manner that is in conflict with our values, our principles, our laws.”
Activist groups, however, argue that money should be diverted from police departments to fund organizations that combat social issues such as homelessness and addiction.
Penzone: Cuts could mean no tasers, less training
Penzone’s comments came after weeks of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black and Hispanic people who have died at the hands of police. The “defund police” movement calls for municipalities to reallocate money from their respective police departments and pour the funds into social programs that could lessen crimes from occurring in the first place.
Penzone threatened that less funding for law enforcement could lead to more fatal shootings, a decline in the quality and health of law enforcement and fewer resources to investigate allegations of misconduct.
Penzone said at a July news conference that a sharp budget reduction could mean departments will no longer be able to purchase, train with and use nonlethal equipment such as stun guns — potentially forcing officers to resort to lethal methods.
Penzone alleged that recruitment screening, police training, mental health services for officers and other services could also fall by the wayside should departments see a massive decrease in funding. Money used for internal investigations could also be sacrificed, Penzone said.
“If you truly want to see law enforcement represent the greatest values and principles of what we stand for when done right, by defunding you will take away resources, training and support services necessary to help men and women in this profession be better, be stable, be mentally well,” Penzone said. “Because you cannot care for others if you’re not cared for yourself.”
The sheriff also suggested that repeated criticism of law enforcement could lead to a state of anarchy as it could dissuade people from ever considering it as a career.
“If we continue to go about this issue demonizing and criticizing law enforcement without limitations and not recognizing the dangers, the challenges and the human elements, then we will live in a space that is lawlessness because you won’t find good men and women willing to do this job,” Penzone said. “And that changes the entire dynamic of who we are as a nation.”
Despite his defenses of law enforcement, Penzone admitted that police agencies could and should improve how they interact with their communities.
“I’m the first one to condemn and agree that we have problems in law enforcement that need to be overcome,” Penzone said. “But law enforcement as a profession and in its majority is not the problem — it’s more about the solution. We just cannot tolerate racial injustice, implicit bias, explicit bias, racist policing — we can’t tolerate those things.”
When asked if he would consider having mental health professionals join deputies when receiving 911 calls about people acting erratically, Penzone said doing so could put even more lives at risk should the situation turn violent.
Instead, Penzone suggested that law enforcement agencies partner with mental health organizations and professionals to help prevent people from turning to violent crime.
Penzone's comments come as four Republicans — including former sheriff Joe Arpaio whom Penzone defeated in 2016 — vie to take back the position as county sheriff from him, a first-term Democrat.
Arpaio remains in a dead heat with his former deputy chief Jerry Sheridan as of Wednesday afternoon.
Advocates push back on Penzone's statements
Local civil advocacy groups admonished Penzone's defenses for preserving law enforcement funding, arguing that deescalation training and implicit bias training have done little to stem violence toward people of color.
Sandra Castro Solis, community organizer with Puente, told The Arizona Republic that internal investigations at law enforcement agencies rarely end with officers being properly reprimanded.
"Internal investigations do not work," Solis said. "Making the argument that defunding police or defunding different law enforcement agencies is going to affect these internal investigations — these internal investigations do not go anywhere. We're seeing that these investigations have no sort of consequence for repeating offending officers."
Solis also criticized Penzone for cooperating with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and continuing to let ICE officers transfer inmates at the Fourth Avenue Jail into ICE custody.
Lola N'sangou, executive director of Mass Liberation Arizona, defended calls to defund police, saying officers can't properly handle many situations, including ones where mental health is a factor, without resorting to violence.
N'sangou said communities should instead redirect funds toward adding social workers and bolster social programs that address issues like homelessness and addiction rather than incarceration.
"We see police responding to things that can otherwise be dealt with," N'sangou said. "Mental health breakdowns? Those can dealt with by trained professionals — professionals who have specific responses that are nonviolent to mental health breakdowns."
N'sangou added that the growing trend of law enforcement using military-grade equipment to stop protests, riots and other activities only escalates situations they're trying to control.
"If, in fact, police were able to deescalate and that were actually what they were sent there and actually intended to do, we would have a different kind of conversation," N'sangou said. "But instead, what we find is that police are, first off, heavily armed. They are escalating situations in and of the way that they show up at all."
Expert: Massive cuts can limit crime investigation
While those advocating to defund police departments say the money would go toward organizations better suited to handle mental health situations that police are often called for, one expert said that deep cuts could mean more crimes don't get assigned detectives.
Ashley Heiberger, a retired Pennsylvania police captain who now consults for police departments, said that while Penzone's comments previously could be seen as fear-mongering, efforts to defund departments could lead to the outcomes Penzone suggested.
Heiberger said that police departments facing cuts typically cut training programs before cutting the largest portion of a department's budget — personnel.
"Salaries and benefits are by far — by far — the largest category of a law enforcement agency's budget," Heiberger said. "If they can't make the numbers work just by trimming around the edges, that's where they have to cut."
Heiberger said departments that suffer sharp budget reductions would likely have to let more patrol officers investigate crimes rather than hand them off to detectives dedicated to solving cases.
"It's very hard as a patrol cop to do follow-up investigations because the 911 calls keep coming," Heiberger said. "So that's not really an ideal situation for either the police department or the community when you start cutting that drastically."
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