Roger Vanderpool hopes his performance as director of the state’s largest police force will speak louder than his political history – two elections as Pinal County Sheriff as a Democrat and an appointment to his current post by a Democratic governor – when Arizona’s Republican governor decides who will lead the department for the next five years.
His five-year term ends in January, and although the Department of Public Safety has faced significant budget cuts in the past two years, Vanderpool said he wants to be reappointed to head the department.
“In a sick way, I want to stay as the director because I see myself as the captain of a ship in a hurricane,” he said. That ship is now in the eye of the hurricane, he continued, and still faces another onslaught of bad weather.
“My hope is to still be sailing the ship, coming out the back side (of the storm), still intact,” he said.
Vanderpool took over DPS in 2005, after being appointed to the position by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano. And although he was a Democrat appointed by a Democratic governor, Vanderpool sailed through the confirmation process, quickly winning approval of the Republican- controlled Senate.
He knows that plays against him in seeking a reappointment from Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, who replaced Napolitano in January after Napolitano joined the Obama administration.
“Obviously, since it is an appointment, and any time you’re being appointed, there’s some politics in it,” Vanderpool said.
But that shouldn’t detract from what the department has accomplished under his watch, he said.
Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman said the governor has shown a commitment to looking beyond politics when choosing who will run state agencies.
“I think the governor has demonstrated that she is looking for the most capable and highly regarded professionals in their fields,” he said. “I can tell you the governor thinks highly of Director Vanderpool.”
Vanderpool, who repeatedly gave credit to his employees for their hard work, said the agency has made significant strides since 2005.
Its crime lab has become accredited internationally and is one of only four labs in the country capable of identifying mitochondrial DNA, a “cutting edge” technology that played a role in convicting the Baseline Killer and the Chandler Rapist.
On the streets, criminal investigations – both those run by DPS and those conducted jointly with other agencies – have stopped drug- and human-smuggling rings. Part of that includes the nation’s only squad dedicated to stopping smuggling in commercial vehicles, which has nabbed more than 60 tractor-trailers full of drugs since its formation in early 2008.
“We interdict more dope and illegal aliens than anybody except for the Border Patrol, and they have 100 times more officers than we do,”
Vanderpool said. He pointed to threats his department’s K-9 officers have received from drug cartels as proof positive that the agency is having an impact.
Even politicians, many of whom divine political motivations where others may see none, said Vanderpool has done a good job running DPS.
Sen. Linda Gray, a Glendale Republican, said Vanderpool has done “a very professional job” leading the agency. She chairs the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee, which likely will be tasked with handling confirmation hearings for whomever Brewer nominates next year.
“I’d have no problem with him being reappointed,” Gray said.
Likewise, Sen. Jonathan Paton, a Republican from Tucson who worked with Vanderpool’s department several years ago to craft a law aimed at punishing human traffickers, praised the department’s work, regardless of the director’s political affiliation.
“I have no issues with him. I can’t say that about a lot of the Napolitano appointees. He seems to be a fairly apolitical, lawman sort of a guy,” Paton said.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, said it would be ill-advised to change directors in the midst of trying financial times, especially since Vanderpool has been able to absorb large budget cuts without eliminating officers or support staff.
“Considering he’s handled the budget situation so well thus far, I say leave him in there. If you put someone else in there, who knows what happens?” she said.
Vanderpool said he has made a similar point to Brewer’s office and likened the situation to an Old West lawman patrolling his territory on horseback.
“It’s kind of like crossing a stream, but when it’s the monsoon and it’s flooded, that’s probably not the right time to change horses,” he said.
Senseman said the Governor’s Office hasn’t yet established a process to select the next director of DPS, though he said the selection system should be set up within the next month.