Maricopa County Sheriff: Paul Penzone wants to build more trust in law enforcement

After taking over a sheriff’s office with a history of racial profiling in 2017, incumbent Paul Penzone hopes to build trust and relationships. (Photo courtesy of Paul Penzone campaign)

Candidate name: Paul Penzone
Political affiliation: Democrat
Position sought: Maricopa County Sheriff
City of residence: Scottsdale
Age: 53
Career: Maricopa County sheriff since 2017; former Phoenix police sergeant, former vice president of a nonprofit aiding victims of child abuse

With the election just days away, Cronkite News is profiling candidates on the Nov. 3 ballot.

If elected, would you change the level of community oversight of your deputies?

Three years into the job, Penzone said, he is leading changes at the Sheriff’s Office, which had been plagued by racial profiling and other controversies under longtime Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whom Penzone unseated in 2016 on the promise of reform.

Because of past violations, he said, the office now has “robust oversight and accountability” in place.

After a federal court found in 2011 that the Sheriff’s Office had violated the rights of Latinos through racial profiling and other unconstitutional practices, the office was placed under federal oversight, where it remains now, Penzone said.

“Not only do we have federal court oversight that involves monitors who are invested in our agency full time, but the Department of Justice and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) are both interveners in that process.”

In his first term, Penzone said he expanded community oversight by creating community advocacy boards to build relationships with African American, Hispanic and LGBTQ communities.

The groups help the office review and write policies, discuss issues that affect their communities, and “ensure their sheriff is answering the questions that are most important to them, but also on a broader scale, to the community’s needs.”

“I never fear it or run from it,” he said of efforts to be transparent and build partnerships. “I think it’s important for us to earn trust. We just have to make sure there’s balance, that we’re doing a great job, and that those who are invested in participating with us have a seat at the table to help us be better.”

How would you address racial disparities in terms of policing?

In addition to reaching out to communities, a key to addressing racial disparities is identifying, acknowledging and potentially removing law enforcement professionals whose behavior doesn’t align with the office’s values. Penzone said he’s proud that his office uses data analysis to identify disparate treatment in traffic stops and citations.

“My oversight and our internal affairs divisions are very disciplined and strict as it relates to treatment of others. If any employee behaves in a way that isn’t consistent with our values, that is (demonstrating) discrimination or bias in any way, we will hold them accountable, even to the point of termination if they’re not deserving of this privilege.”

The Sheriff’s Office holds bias training for its employees, Penzone said, and he strives to lead his employees by example.

“As the sheriff, I have a responsibility every day to make sure my treatment and respect I show for everyone in the community becomes an example. I’m a firm believer that the more you do to bring people into an organization and reflect a diverse community, the more you do to extend your reach to diverse communities.”

What is the greatest issue Arizona residents face? If reelected, how would you address it?

The greatest issue facing residents is integrity.

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“As a nation, whether it’s a health pandemic or it’s disparate treatment in law enforcement, when we have protests where the majority is peaceful but there’s some people within that who behave in a criminal manner, we have to be honest about it in all contexts. And if we’re not honest about it, we can’t solve problems. It’s about being invested in truth.”

The country has strayed from its constitutional values, Penzone said, and leaders aren’t held accountable the way they should be.

“No matter what element of it you look at, whether you’re talking about free speech, the right to bear arms, or protections against search and seizure, at the end of the day, if we’re not always seeking truth and speaking to truth, those words become meaningless.”

If asked by the president, would you send deputies to polling locations to provide security for elections?

“No. The only reason we should ever be involved in anything as it relates to the democratic process is if there’s a threat to public safety and we’re responding to some act of violence or a criminal act.

“We should never be in a space that could intimidate people from their right to cast a vote and ensure that their voice is heard. Democracy must be protected. I believe our presence in that space works as a detriment to democracy as opposed to a benefit.”

What other issues are important to you and your campaign?

Child safety, fighting human trafficking and building the Maricopa Animal Safe Haven are important to Penzone, but the top issue is restoring trust and accountability in law enforcement.

“Our community needs to have a law enforcement profession that they know is not only invested in public safety but public respect. What I want to see is law enforcement returning to a space where we’re guardians, we’re strong on issues as it relates to public safety, but we also exude compassion, patience and understanding, and we’re part of the solution instead of contributing to the problem.”

Penzone said he hopes improving trust in law enforcement will motivate the young people needed for the next generation of law enforcement professionals.

“If they don’t look up to us with trust and confidence, then as we look to fill vacancies and recruit, we’re not going to be choosing those who are the most qualified and deserving.”

What in your past work, political or volunteer experience makes you a better candidate to hold this office?

Penzone, who was a Phoenix police officer for two decades, said he brings a wide spectrum of experiences to the Sheriff’s Office, from working as an undercover narcotics detective to serving on the board of Childhelp, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing and treating child abuse.

As a police sergeant, he also led the Silent Witness program, which aims to solve cold cases and catch dangerous fugitives by encouraging witnesses to anonymously come forward to law enforcement.

Among his proudest achievements in his first term, he said, are organizing the state’s first-ever school safety forum, establishing a unit in collaboration with the FBI to capture dangerous fugitives, and partnering with the McCain Institute at Arizona State University to implement human trafficking training for law enforcement.

In Penzone’s first term, the Sheriff’s Office also shut down the outdoor jail Tent City. The land where it stood now is the site of a new rehabilitative program called Mosaic, which seeks to break the incarceration cycle by addressing trauma and addiction among inmates.

Most of his work takes place behind the scenes, he said.

“I’m not the one who’s doing work out in the streets. I’m directing and managing those who do, but they’re the ones who make the sacrifice. Law enforcement should never be about me. It should be about my effort to facilitate their success and my commitment to make sure they have the resources they need to be successful.”

What’s a personal challenge you’d like to overcome?

“We have a false sense that once we accomplish or attain certain things, life becomes conflict-free or challenge-free. I view it differently. I think every day is this challenge that’s really an opportunity.”

“Eyes are always on you,” he tells his deputies, who must be aware that even the smallest interactions can affect others.

Please share a quote or advice that you live by

“You define the moment, or the moment defines you,” he said, quoting the 1996 sports comedy “Tin Cup.”

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