Babeu in 2008 became the first Republican elected to countywide office in Pinal County history. His goal, he said, was to make the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office more efficient and to earn back the trust he felt the department had lost with the public.
A Massachusetts native whose résumé highlights include boarding school headmaster, Iraq war veteran and Chandler police officer, Babeu came in looking to shake things up. In his short time in office, he has implemented new training for his deputies, upgraded the technology used by the department and shifted around personnel at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. He also has gotten people’s attention across the state with his outspoken stances against illegal immigration and photo-enforcement cameras.
In an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times, the sheriff talked about his eventful first year in office, his plans for the future, admiration for his famous counterpart in Maricopa County and why he feels the political scene in Pinal County will never be the same.
You say you were the first Republican elected countywide in Pinal County history, which conservatives are viewing as a watershed moment for the GOP in Arizona. How did you beat that historical trend?
We were very well organized and we worked our tails off. And we had articulated a message. It was about what we’re trying to do to keep our Pinal County families safe.
We had a plan for what we were going to do. We said we were going to clean things up, we said we were going to do training. We said we were going to bring new technology and equipment. And now, this novel concept of actually following through and doing exactly what we said we were going to do.
It’s going to help other candidates, Republicans who have never had a chance. (People will say) “Hey, the sheriff has done a good job. He did what he said.” Things have been getting cleaned up in the county, and we’re having a balance in the government. I think reasonable people – because this is a core principle of America and our republic – even when they look at it politically, they won’t discount the Republican.
You had a lot of reforms you wanted to implement when you first came in. What was your first order of business?
To change out leadership, and we did that. We brought in people, some of them that I didn’t know before. But I went out and actively interviewed and recruited professionals. And I hired three prior deputy wardens from Arizona Department of Corrections who were proven leaders. I never even knew these people before the election. I went out and interviewed a number of people and recruited these folks here to the Sheriff’s Office.
And I think that’s a mark, too, that a lot of these folks who are around me have far more experience than I do in these particular disciplines. And yet I’m not threatened by that. I need that.
When you first took office, you made kind of a splash by ordering that all photo-enforcement cameras on county roads be taken down. What’s your objection to them?
A camera cannot replace a peace officer. The leading cause of death for our youth, ages six to 33 in Pinal County, is DUI. And most people don’t know that. That’s just one aspect that a photo-enforcement camera cannot impact. Certain people have embraced photo enforcement like we need fewer cops now because of it.
We saw here in Pinal County and around the state that photo enforcement is used as a revenue generator. And I said very clearly – and a lot of people embraced these comments – that I’m the sheriff, I’m not the tax collector. This photo radar was created and implemented to generate money for the government. And that’s the wrong policy for law enforcement, an honorable profession, to be tied with revenue generation.
I didn’t just get rid of photo radar. I replaced it with a traffic team of motors. We didn’t have motorcycle cops here before I became sheriff. Now we have five of them. All they do is traffic enforcement.
We didn’t have that before.
A photo camera cannot see whether you and I have insurance, whether we have a valid driver’s license, whether we have a warrant for our arrest, whether you need directions or whether you need a warning to slow down.
Republicans were very excited about your election because of the historical trends that heavily favor Democrats, but really how important are those kinds of political distinctions to law enforcement?
I believe that it’s very important, not only because of values, but our discipline, our commitments. Everything that I’ve said that we were going to do, we’re doing. That speaks volumes, not only for law enforcement to rebuild the broken trust in the Sheriff’s Office, but (because) people know that I’m a Republican. People know that when I say I’m going to do something, I do it, and that I’m not afraid to professionally speak my mind, and also to stand up for what’s right.
And that has been sorely lacking in this county.
So symbolically, in reality, this is a new type of leadership in this county. People may like it or they may dislike it, but this will be a barometer and could help many other candidates that come forward who also want the opportunity to serve in this fast-growing county.
Staunch opponents of illegal immigration were especially pleased with your election. Why is that?
For a couple reasons. One, because there was a hands-off approach.
Basically, many could argue and say that it was a sanctuary county.
Pinal County is one of the largest pass-through counties to metro Phoenix, not only for drug smuggling but for human smuggling. A majority of the traffic comes through Pinal County. So what we do or do not do will directly affect the entire state, because they’re going mainly to metro Phoenix as a platform to either stay there or go some other point in the country.
We’ve trained a dozen deputies and three or four detention staff in 287(g) (a federal program that trains officers in the enforcement of immigration law). We stop a vehicle and there’s a load of illegals, and we’re focusing on the transport as they’re coming into the country. We’re not going on farms. We’re not going into town or city halls.
So the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office has street-level 287(g) training as well as detention training?
Yes, absolutely. We do.
But you’ve also said that your office would not conduct the kinds of controversial crime sweeps used by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
Actually, when Sheriff Joe asked me to come up and provide some support in the East Valley, I was happy to oblige for many reasons.
One, I do believe it is effective. We had a number of deputies who just came back from the federal training out East and … it served as a training opportunity for them. They’re seasoned deputies, but they’re newly minted 287(g) certified, so it was a mentoring kind of opportunity. They rode shotgun with an MCSO deputy. So we were happy to do that.
I do believe it is effective. However, if I could establish a standalone squad specifically dedicated to 287(g), I would. I don’t have the money to do it. And right now, all of these 287(g) certified (deputies) are in a full-time patrol or detective investigator positions that have their own duties.
So it’s a matter of resources, not philosophy?
Correct. That and the types of sweeps that we would do would be different. What we would do would be what we just participated in in the East Valley where it’s almost like a DUI enforcement, but for any types of crimes and activities. We do look at partnering with our county attorney. We’ve had a recent discussion to look at the employer sanctions (law). There’s a couple cases that we’re looking very closely at now, and we’re working cooperatively with him to follow up and investigate.
You mean you’re investigating the employers?
Yes. It’s never been done here before.
You’ve been somewhat controversial in Pinal County, but obviously less so than your counterpart in Maricopa County. How do you feel about the way Sheriff Arpaio does his job?
I’m very good friends with Sheriff Joe, and he has helped me on many occasions. And I have helped him when he has asked for it. We share similar views in most areas, yet we have a very different style and approach.
How are your styles and approaches different?
I work very hard and deliberately to explain in conversation the “why” – why we are doing things and why it is important and how it benefits us and our families in terms of keeping us safe.
What I’ve tried to do is have a conversation as well on the illegal immigration issue, let’s say, where the discussion has often been over here that you’re with Sheriff Joe or you’re over here and you’re for open borders. And if you’re over here with Sheriff Joe, you’re oftentimes called a racist. I don’t agree with that and I am over here (with Sheriff Joe), and what I try to say and to share is the why.
And it’s a little bit softer of a tone, and it’s also the explaining and maybe not as aggressive in the manner in which we go about our business. That’s not saying that his is right or wrong or mine is right or wrong. My personality is expressed in my leadership and how I go about business.
So it’s a matter of style, not substance?
Definitely style is a major factor. I think that’s the beauty of serving in this office is the people here in Pinal County know exactly how I feel and how I think. They know exactly in Maricopa County how Sheriff Joe feels and thinks. He can be a little bit more abrupt than I, but I think he does a great job.
You headed up the officers union at the Chandler Police Department. That labor background seems kind of unusual for a Republican.
What made you decide to take on that position?
For me, what I tried to do is to advocate, not just for officers and detectives, but I took very real my sworn oath to the public as a peace officer and that my job was to keep our focus on improving the safety of our community, and being well trained, well equipped in order to be able to do that.
I tried to work in concert with Chief (Sherry) Kiyler and in concert with city management, and I would try to get them to understand our perspective. So here again the style would show that I would try to work in cooperation with them, pushing in the very same direction as our leaders, never working to undermine the chief or our chain of command in the police department.
And oftentimes, unions make that misstep, I believe, and … they see their administration as their enemy. These are their leaders. So what I tried to do is to try to complement anything that my chief saw as an organization goal for the Chandler Police Department … and help achieve that.
I did not relinquish my representation of my officers or detectives.
We were very aggressive. But it was the style and manner in which I did it. So it can be very disarming. As long as people understand your motives, that hey, we have to work these things through, and it may be a conflict and opinion, but it doesn’t mean we have to be enemies.
You’ve been billed as kind of a rising political star. Do you have any ambitions for higher office?
I absolutely love being sheriff of Pinal County and I fully intend to be here for my full term, and I’m tracking toward re-election in 2012.