Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, a 41-year-old from Massachusetts, is becoming known for his tough border security stance, despite being from a county some 90 miles from Mexico.
Babeu, who was elected to the North Adams, Mass., City Council at age 18, came to Arizona shortly after losing an election for North Adams mayor in 2001. He became a Chandler police officer and in November 2008 defeated a Democratic incumbent to become sheriff.
The border wasn’t a key campaign issue, but by the time a Pinal County deputy was shot and wounded April 30, apparently by smugglers, Babeu (pronounced “BAB-you”) already was emerging as a border-security authority.
He’s made regular appearances on national television and radio since he appeared with Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, at an April 19 news conference in Washington, D.C.
He advised McCain and Kyl on their 10-step border security plan and took some credit for McCain’s hardened border stance.
“I’ve worked to convince him (McCain) that this is the way to go,” Babeu told the Arizona Daily Star.
He considers himself qualified to speak on border issues due to his position as sheriff in a smuggling corridor and his leadership in the Arizona Army National Guard during Operation Jump Start, which sent National Guard troops to the Southwest border to support the Border Patrol. He spent 17 months as commander of Task Force Yuma supervising 700 soldiers in 2006-2007.
He downplays his political aspirations, but molds his personal image by posting his television appearances on his Facebook page and his personal website — Sheriffpaul.com, the newspaper reported.
“Assaults against police officers, officer-involved shootings, home invasions, carjackings, violent crimes. And you ask why is that? We can clearly point to the flow of illegal immigrants,” Babeu told CBS reporter Bill Whitaker in an April 30 report on Arizona’s tough new immigration law.
But retired Mesa police officer Bill Richardson, who also worked for 10 years on a Drug Enforcement Administration task force in Pima, Pinal and other counties, said many officers question how 3½ years on patrol in Chandler and a border deployment qualify Babeu as a national border security expert.
“It would be like a college freshman premed student who’s had one anatomy class telling a veteran pathologist how to do an autopsy,” he said.
Babeu’s claims of soaring violence have more to do with his political aspirations than reality, Richardson said.
He said Babeu is “creating fear or fanning the flames of fear that the undocumented are the root cause of crime in Arizona. In fact, they are not.”
Pinal County Sheriff’s Office statistics show major crimes in the county have decreased or remained steady over the past three years. However, Babeu and Lt. Tamatha Villar said the information for this year is preliminary and does not provide a complete picture.
“I’m not making these things up,” Babeu said. “There is more than enough stuff that’s going on here, and the threat is real.”
Babeu’s office is decorated with a vintage Ronald Reagan poster above the desk; a copy of Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” lies on a coffee table. But Babeu’s hero is McCain, who also made military experience the foundation of a political career.
Babeu joined the Massachusetts National Guard at age 21 and now is a major in the Arizona Army National Guard.
“One of the leadership traits in the military is you seek and accept responsibility,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
Pete Rios, a veteran Democratic politician and chairman of the Pinal County Board of Supervisors, said Babeu is doing a good job, but worries about Babeu’s focus on immigration issues.
And Roger Vanderpool, former sheriff and Arizona Department of Public Safety director, said Babeu is “learning management and supervision in law enforcement on the job.”
Babeu’s inexperience has department morale at its lowest point in nearly two decades, said Pinal County sheriff’s Sgt. Scott “S.G” Gillen, a 19-year-veteran and president of the Pinal County Deputies Association. As evidence, Gillen points his own election as union president six months after Babeu put him on paid administrative leave while the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office investigates criminal complaints.
Babeu also has a long list of supporters, and his resume includes glowing appraisals from Chandler police supervisors, two lifesaving medals as a Chandler officer and numerous National Guard awards.
Villar, named department spokeswoman by Babeu, said he has improved morale through higher standards and recognizing employees’ efforts.
“Every holiday he comes and shakes hands with every staff member on every shift in our detention center who don’t get to be home with their families,” she said.