Feb. 10, 2013— -- Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio teamed up with actor Steven Seagal to teach members of his armed volunteer "posse" how to handle potential school shootings.
The self-described "America's Toughest Sheriff" sparked controversy late last year after the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting when he said he would deploy the posse to monitor the perimeter of more than 50 Phoenix-area schools for suspicious activity. Members of the 3,450-strong group began patrolling in January, and the sheriff's office announced recently that the program will likely continue next year.
The simulated shooting took place on Saturday afternoon in a vacant school outside Phoenix. About 25 teenage volunteers acted the part of students while members of the posse practiced what to do if a shooter or multiple shooters entered school premises.
The training was designed to teach posse members how to handle multiple-shooter situations, room-entry tactics and hand-to-hand combat. Posse members practiced using semi-automatic rifles and handguns called simunitions, which use marking rounds rather than bullets.
"I want everybody to know that we're going to be around those schools, that if you do something we will be armed, and we're going into the schools to save our kids," Arpaio told reporters on Saturday, pounding a podium to emphasize each point.
While the volunteers are assigned to monitor around the perimeter of schools, a spokeswoman for Arpaio said that if an emergency arose, the posse would be permitted to enter school grounds.
However, as ABC/Univision previously noted, according to a local CBS affiliate, some of Arpaio's posse members have criminal records.
Their investigation "uncovered a number of posse members with arrests for assault, drug possession, domestic violence, sex crimes against children, disorderly conduct, impersonating an officer - and the list goes on."
Seagal, a friend of the sheriff's, led the training along with members of the sheriff's SWAT team.
According to a statement from the sheriff's office, "While his qualified armed posse volunteers are already well trained to handle emergency situations, Arpao says that school shootings pose unique circumstances which require more mission specific training modalities."
Not everyone agrees however. Members of Respect Arizona Recall Arpaio, a group that opposes the sheriff's actions, carried signs and protested outside of the school on Saturday. They told Univision the training was politically motivated and designed to garner attention. They said the fact that an actor was leading a training for such a serious topic was absurd.
But Seagal told reporters on Saturday that he was qualified for the job. He already volunteers as part of Arpaio's posse, and he has been deputized with sheriff's offices in three other states. The star of Under Siege and Above the Law also filmed a reality show, Steven Segal: Lawman, where he served as a reserve deputy in Louisiana.
"I've put hundreds of thousands if not millions of hours into my weapons training," the actor told reporters on Saturday.
Seagal added that he would do anything to protect students.
"They are our most precious asset," he said. "They are our treasures and we have to protect them."
Sheriff Arpaio, who has also come under fire for his hardline stance on immigration, told ABC/Univision in December that it did not matter whether schools wanted armed posse members patrolling outside.
"It doesn't matter whether they like it or don't," he said. "I'm still going to do it. I can't imagine criticism coming when they're given free protection."