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Sheriff Penzone discusses community issues at local forum


Elizabeth Medora

NORTH VALLEY – Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone spoke at a community meeting on Friday, discussing local issues and sharing plans and priorities for Valley law enforcement.

The meeting, which was sponsored by the New River/Desert Hills Community Association and the Anthem Community Council, was well-attended, and Penzone received a warm welcome from attendees. He addressed a wide range of topics, including the future of Tent City, drug enforcement, traffic law enforcement, and MCSO staffing.

Penzone opened the meeting by addressing the attendees, thanking the community for inviting him, as well as thanking members of the military and law enforcement in the audience. He noted that he is focused on making communities safer and embodying ethics and transparency in MCSO.

“This has been my life, my entire goal,” Penzone said. “From the first time I put a uniform on and a badge, I had a sense of pride, that it was my job to go out there and keep you safe.”

Penzone noted that the transition in MCSO leadership has included changes to the way things were done but that overall the staff has been receptive, “embracing the idea that we want to do things a little differently than in the past.”

“The days of the Sheriff’s office being an organization that often does things that make the news unnecessarily are over,” Penzone stated. “We have to be solely focused on public safety.”

Multiple commenters brought up the issue of drug enforcement, with one asking what was being done to stop the flow of heroin into the country.

Penzone, who has worked in narcotics enforcement at the state and federal levels, said that heroin use often begins with prescription opioid use and that drug cartels have recognized this. Noting that crime often follows drug addiction, Penzone related information on enforcement, as well as an emphasis on education and inspiration for those who are struggling with addiction.

MCSO’s drug enforcement includes the Sheriff’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) initiative, a federal program funded by a grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy which provides assistance for fighting drug trafficking.

MCSO periodically provides medication drop-off services, and Penzone said that ideas are being explored for ways to take the lead to get unneeded medications safely disposed of. Unused pills can end up misused by others in the home or stolen in a burglary; safely disposing of them helps protect the patients for whom the pills were prescribed.

“We have to make a practice of taking those pills to a place where they can be destroyed,” Penzone emphasized.

The pending closure of Tent City has garnered national attention, and Penzone discussed the reasoning behind it, noting financial savings and safety of staff.

“We projected we could save as much as $4.5 million,” Penzone said, referring to closing Tent City, noting that all available data had been studied, including recidivism, cost, and officer safety. The inmates currently at Tent City will be moved to other county jails.

Penzone said the next step is “How do we make that land productive?” He added that he has had many calls asking for consideration for use of the land; several top options for the space will be identified and then a choice will be made. At this time, no statements are being made on what the land use will be, but Penzone said that, “Whatever it’s going to be, it’s got to be something that moves us forward.”

MCSO is understaffed, Penzone said, and grouping inmates together will help promote detention officer safety.

“We have pods where we have two detention officers overseeing 150 inmates,” Penzone said, adding that pulling staff closer together allows officers basic health and safety necessities, such as being able to safely leave their partners alone long enough to take a restroom break.

Penzone stressed that inmates will continue to be incarcerated as required, stating that they need to be accountable for their crimes.

Penzone spoke of community involvement in multiple areas, from keeping a watch on your own neighborhood to helping identify fugitives. He called posses a “tremendous tool” and said that he aims to certify posse members to provide community education to county residents.  

Asked about federal oversight of MCSO, Penzone responded that he inherited about 260 lawsuits and that MCSO is under two court orders. He noted that once MCSO is in compliance, the department must stay in compliance for three consecutive years to fulfill the requirements.

“If we fall short, it starts over. The financial burden is tremendous on you. It impacts us because those are dollars that we can’t allocate otherwise,” Penzone said.

“We’ll never be truly healthy until the organization is free of that burden which we own because of our past failures,” Penzone continued, saying that they are “working on this every day” to get to a “better place in business and a better place with the community we serve.”

Questioned on his views on illegal immigration, Penzone denounced illegal immigration and discussed the legalities of enforcement.

Improper entry to the United States is a federal offense. Immigration and Customs Enforcement handles immigration, and Penzone said ICE representatives are at MCSO jails as they have always been.

“We need to focus in this community on the laws we’re empowered to enforce,” Penzone said. “No matter who it is, we have a responsibility to do our job ethically and accurately.”