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Arizona Sheriff Paul Babeu – Law Enforcement Leader

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Writer: Steve Melito

To protect the public against drug cartel members who carry scoped rifles and AK-47s, Sheriff Babeu’s deputies now carry AR-15s as well as handguns. But neither weaponry nor technology alone can keep Pinal County, Arizona safe.

Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona leads a department of 700 employees on the front lines of an undeclared war against Mexico’s drug cartels. Spanning nearly 5,400 square miles, this fast-growing county is located between Phoenix and Tucson some 70 miles north of the Mexican border. Pinal County may not share a frontier with America’s southern neighbor, but it’s still “the number one-pass through point for drug and human smuggling” into the United States, the Sheriff explains.

With an estimated 75 cartel cells and outposts in operation, Pinal County has seen drug-related murders on residential streets, gangland-style executions, and attacks on law enforcement. The Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s most powerful and violent criminal organizations, has moved billions of dollars’ worth of marijuana, cocaine, black tar heroin, and methamphetamines through Arizona and into America’s heartland. “Mexico is now the major producer of meth for the United States,” Sherriff Babeu notes, an unfortunate side effect of cracking down on meth labs closer to home.


War at Home and Abroad

Last year, the Pinal County Sherriff’s Office (PCSO) snapped a branch off the Sinaloa Cartel’s tree-like structure. In the largest drug bust in Arizona history, PCSO led the U.S. Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and other sheriff’s departments in a law enforcement operation that arrested 76 cartel members, including six key figures. Although the task force temporarily interrupted billions of dollars in drug trafficking, “the gang has reconstituted,” Babeu explains. “As soon as we dismantle them, there’s a line of people waiting to take their place”.

The Sinaloa Cartel also continues to intimidate, corrupt, and kill police officers, judges, and mayors in northern Mexico. “They’re terrorists,” Babeu states plainly, describing the shootings, beheadings, and dismemberment that define the Cartel’s brand of “violence and mayhem.” If Mexico is not already a failed nation-state, then “it’s on the ledge”, he adds. On one side of the border, Mexico’s state and federal governments are unable to maintain control. On the other, the U.S. federal government espouses what Babeu calls “a falsehood that the border is more secure than ever before”.

Several years ago, the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) addressed Arizona’s border security concerns in a way that Sheriff Babeu found “unacceptable and repulsive”. Instead of posting warning signs aimed at drug smugglers, DOI put up billboards with travel adversaries for American citizens. Public outcry led the department to remove the signs, but the incident provided “proof that the federal government says one thing and does another” when it comes to protecting the border, Babeu claims.


Iraq and Arizona

Sheriff Babeu’s outspokenness irks his opponents, but helped him to unseat an incumbent sheriff in 2008. As the challenger, he promised to reduce emergency response times in a county that’s larger than the state of Connecticut. His opponent derided this campaign promise during a debate, Babeu recalls, but Pinal County voters ultimately chose a new sheriff – a leader with military, political, and law enforcement experience.

A retired Army National Guard Major and Iraq War veteran, Paul Babeu began his political career back East in Massachusetts, where he served as Berkshire County Commissioner and ran for Mayor of North Adams. After heading west, he graduated from the Arizona Law Enforcement Academy and began his police career in Chandler, where he earned two Life Saving Medals in the line of duty.


There’s a New Sheriff in Town

On the night Babeu was sworn-in as Pinal County Sheriff, he remembers sitting in a patrol car with a deputy and getting a call over the radio. The car lacked a global positioning system (GPS) or a computer, so the deputy had to pull over and write down the incident location. When the way there became confusing, the deputy called dispatch for street-by-street assistance. As standard operating procedures, these practices tied up the radio, lengthened the response time, and increased citizen frustration.

Improving the PCSO would require more than technological fixes, however. In addition to increased officer training, Babeu restructured his law enforcement command and sought to “change the culture” of the Sheriff’s Department. The PCSO applied for and won over $7 million dollars in grants, yet grant money alone wasn’t a magic bullet for a sprawling county where the number of sworn officers is fixed. Providing “clear direction” and “reinforcing successes” were the keys, Babeu explains.


Law Enforcement Technology

A mainly rural county, Pinal poses challenges of distance and communication. When Sheriff Babeu first took office, less than 30 of the PCSO’s 160 vehicles had laptop computers. Today, each car is equipped with a ruggedized Panasonic ToughBook that has a wireless connection with secure encryption. “Now a deputy can write a report from anywhere”, Babeu explains, “without having to go back to a substation”.

In addition to computers, the Sheriff’s Department installed a GPS in every patrol vehicle. Officer safety was Babeu’s intent, but vehicle safety became an added benefit. In 2007, nearly 20 police cars were involved in what Babeu calls “major wrecks – and a lot of that had to do with driving too fast when unnecessary”. Today, the number of badly damaged or totaled vehicles has dropped to about five per year.


Policing Strategies

When PCSO deputies do travel at high rates of speed, it’s often in pursuit of drug or human smugglers. Last year alone, rural Pinal County was the scene of over 350 high-speed pursuits – more than most large metropolitan areas. Typically, the Sinaloa Cartel scouts who reconnoiter the county are well-armed if otherwise ill-equipped. Their theft of food, socks, and even batteries is all-too common among residents who’ve been burglarized.

To protect the public against cartel members who carry scoped rifles and AK-47s, Babeu’s deputies now carry AR-15s as well as handguns. But neither weaponry nor technology alone can keep citizens safe. In a move that critics claimed would never work in a rural area, Babeu broke the sprawling county into 22 different beats. In policing, the “beat system” is a mainly metropolitan model. In Pinal County, some individual beats are larger geographically than some U.S. cities.

Limiting the area for which a “beat cop” is responsible provided multiple benefits, Babeu explains. First, emergency response times fell because deputies began driving shorter distances. Second, each deputy could “get to know” the schools, businesses, and “frequent flyers” that he or she encounters repeatedly. Finally, deputies developed a “sense of ownership” over their areas. “We went from answering calls,” Sheriff Babeu notes, to a sense that “this is my piece of real estate to police and I’m responsible for it.”


Changing the Culture

Although Babeu took office with what he calls “a solid mandate”, the new Sheriff was greeted with skepticism by some PCSO staff. In a series of five town-hall style meetings, Babeu presented his law enforcement “vision” and explained his reasons for revamping the department. He also replaced his top command and answered questions from deputies. Some critics continued to levy what Babeu calls “harsh criticism” until hard data proved that response times had been reduced.

“It’s not enough for leaders to have good ideas,” he explains. “You have to get buy-in” from the men and women who will perform the mission. As Babeu recalls, he “almost micromanaged things at first” to get the results he wanted. Eventually, however, the Sheriff was able to “empower” his deputies by giving them both authority and responsibility. As Babeu “blocked and tackled for them”, he explains, PCSO deputies began to “get it done on their own”.


Law Enforcement Training

Reducing response times in Pinal County also helped to improve interactions between citizens and deputies. If Priority 1 calls took 15 to 18 minutes, a figure that Babeu terms “unacceptable,” callers would be angry by the time a deputy arrived. If the officer responded in kind, the exchange would further delay the response – and maybe even the response to the next call. As part of changing the culture within the PCSO, Babeu instituted training programs that emphasized the importance of customer service. “The basic thing we do in law enforcement,” he says, is to “make it oriented towards the people we serve”.

Deputies also learned to accept direction from dispatchers, a change that eased tensions between the two groups. Officers received training in first aid and CPR, too. “Before, they were responding to medical calls where they couldn’t help,” the Sheriff explains. “There was a lack of leadership and supervision, but we’ve catapulted forward in a lot of areas.”

Other organizational changes included the establishment of anti-smuggling units and the multi-agency West Desert Task Force. “Our message to the cartels is ‘you’re not coming through here’,” Babeu says, noting the addition of two helicopters and a Piper SuperCub to PSCO’s assets. Law enforcement aviation requires funding, of course, and that’s where the Sheriff made another significant improvement.


Grant Application and Administration

Before Paul Babeu became Sheriff, Pinal County didn’t have a grant administrator. Although “the opportunity for grants is greater than ever,” he explains, PCSO had forfeited nearly $50,000 in grant money by failing to spend it. “There was a lack of staffing or accountability”, he recalls, along with a managerial failure to identify where the Sheriff’s Department needed to enforce speed limits and assign resources. “Why would we not use available overtime money to do this?” he asks.

Grant recipients had also failed to track spending, provide reporting, and communicate with each other. “I learned that everyone operated it,” Babeu says of the “disjointed effort” he inherited. “The jail did one, victim’s services did one, and the governor’s office another – they never cross-communicated.” To streamline the grant management process, the Sheriff hired an experienced grant administrator who had worked for the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.


Getting Results

Today, the PSCO has been so successful at applying for grants that Babeu has had to hire additional staff to help administer them. “All of our reports are done in a timely fashion,” he explains, with “statistics and information” gathered and presented in a consistent manner. “It’s not enough to just apply for the grants,” he adds, “You have to articulate the need and be competitive”.

In military, law enforcement, and business alike, Paul Babeu concludes, leaders must “deploy resources wisely, provide clear direction, and reinforce their successes”. Effective leaders must also “show results”, a fact Babeu counts in his favor as he appeals to Pinal County voters to re-elect him as Sheriff.


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