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.
"The deputies do the heavy lifting," he says. "We do the clean-up work, you might say."
Bennett is prepared for the worst. But chances are slim that he will find himself in a situation precarious enough to warrant use of his weapons, he says. In his 10 years with the posse, he has not fired a single shot while on duty.
"I hope I never do, but in the event that that would happen, one must be trained in how to and when to," he adds.
Whatever the job, Bennett says his duty is to respond to the sheriff's orders and make sure "that I'm making contributions to the community."
With that in mind, the building contractor signed up for the posse a decade ago as he eased into semi-retirement. He went through various levels of training for nearly a year, including 100 hours on firearms alone to earn his certification. Like all posse members, he had to buy his uniform, guns, handcuffs, and other equipment. He spent about $3,000.
These days, Bennett devotes much of his time to the posse. Last year, he put in 2,000 hours on posse business, he says, about half on patrol and half on administrative work as commander of his area's volunteer group of some 60 members. They take turns watching for anything suspicious around 14 schools in the communities they patrol.
When children and school principals wave as he makes his rounds, he feels good about his service.
"As posse members, we are the eyes and ears of the community," he says.
Miles away, Luis Fuerte is at Frank Elementary School – one of 59 schools on the posse patrol list – to pick up his little boy and goddaughter. Recently, he was shaken by the arrest of a 10-year-old boy, who was threatening to stab a student at the school. So he has no qualms about having the posse keep an eye out.
"If my kids are safe, then that makes me feel a lot better," he says.