From a distance, the Maricopa County sheriff's patrol car parked near the entrance to a school parking lot suggests the presence of a uniformed deputy, sitting vigilant behind the wheel – a 9 millimeter Glock on his waist, a Remington shotgun nearby, and a bulletproof vest snug under his tan shirt.
But the man behind the wheel is no deputy.
He is retiree David Bennett, a volunteer with the armed posse that Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently dispatched to patrol school zones in metropolitan Phoenix. It is the sheriff's answer to keeping students safe in the aftermath of the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December that left 26 people dead, including 20 children.
It is also at least a glimpse of how schools might look if the National Rifle Association had its way. In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in Newtown, the NRA proposed putting armed guards at the entrance of every school. It vowed to help train ex-cops and other volunteers for the task. Here in Phoenix, Sheriff Arpaio has essentially already taken the lead.
School administrators did not respond to calls requesting comment, but among the parents interviewed, the response was favorable.
"I think it's good for the community, I think it's good for the schools," says Karen Brinkman, who has children in Maricopa County public schools. "There needs to be a presence there."
But critics accuse the publicity-prone Arpaio of exploiting the school tragedy for self-promotion. They also question the effectiveness of random patrols outside school grounds without input from school administrators and state government.
"The events in Newtown should be addressed by the governor, legislature, and county and local officials," Randy Parraz, president of Citizens for a Better Arizona, said in a statement.
In her State of the State speech earlier this month, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) proposed more resources to place armed officers inside schools but opposed the idea of arming teachers, as some people across the country have suggested.
Arpaio says trying to get various groups to agree on the best way to tackle school safety could take months. And he saw fit to take quick action on his own.
"Unfortunately, you've got a lot of politics involved in this," he says.
Patrolling outside schools in communities north of Phoenix is just the latest job for members of Arpaio's posse – many of them retirees like Mr. Bennett. Seeking extra help for his department, Arpaio created the posse in 1993 to patrol malls during the holiday season. Today, they check in when people call police worried about someone's health or safety, transport injured inmates to hospitals, and help with traffic control. They also provide security during the sheriff's controversial workplace raids targeting immigrants working in the country illegally.
A local CBS affiliate, KPHO-TV, investigated the posse and found some volunteers have a criminal history that includes offenses such as assault, drug possession, and domestic violence. More than 400 of the 3,000 posse members carry firearms.
The sheriff stands by his posse and says its saves millions in taxpayer money. The same taxpayers would be responsible for any mishaps involving posse members while on the job.
Mr. Bennett pays little attention to the criticism surrounding the posse's latest assignment. He notes that members always work under the supervision of deputies.