By Tim Gaynor
CAVE CREEK, Arizona (Reuters) - Retired salesman David Bennett sits in a patrol car, armed with a semi-automatic Glock pistol and a shotgun, watching as parents drop off their children at a kindergarten in a desert community a few miles north of Phoenix.
Bennett is volunteering his time to join a posse organized by controversial lawman Joe Arpaio, who styles himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff."
The mission: to deter a repeat of last month's school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut.
"Hopefully we are letting the bad guy know that this school is being watched," said Bennett, peering through the windshield as a mother led her daughter by the hand through the school gate.
Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio, who is best known nationally for targeting illegal immigrants, started school patrols earlier this month in the wake of the rampage that killed 20 children and six adults in Connecticut.
Gun rights lobby groups led by the National Rifle Association have called for armed guards in every school - a proposal that alarms many gun control advocates.
President Barack Obama last week proposed the most sweeping package of gun-control measures in generations, calling for a ban on assault weapons and other steps likely to face a tough ride in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
While the debate rages nationwide, Arpaio is among those who are taking action at a local level.
A divisive figure in metro Phoenix, Arpaio was swept to a sixth term in office in November by backers of his hardline stance on crime and illegal immigration.
At the same time, he is fighting lawsuits from the government and Hispanic drivers who accuse him of civil rights violations and racial profiling, which he denies.
His 3,000-strong posse of unpaid men and women has for years helped Arpaio target drunk drivers and illegal immigrants, and chase down fathers behind on child support. Last year, Arpaio sent posse members to Hawaii to investigate the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate at the request of local Tea Party activists - a key Arpaio constituency.
Arpaio's drive to keep a watchful eye over 59 schools in unincorporated areas around Phoenix is welcomed by many residents. But it has also raised suspicion among some in the Latino community - almost a third of the county's population - who fear it could be used to unfairly target Hispanics.
Dressed in a uniform with a "Maricopa County Deputy Sheriff" patch, posse member Bennett has the rank of captain and supervises volunteers patrolling 11 schools in the Cave Creek and Anthem communities a few miles north of downtown Phoenix.
"I know that their presence in a squad car could deter someone ... coming to do harm. In that respect, I think having a sheriff's car in the parking lot could be very helpful as a deterrent and I appreciate that," said Cave Creek Unified School District 93 superintendent Debbi Burdick.
"They are not actually physically in schools ... They are only patrolling outside of the schools in their vehicles, and that's fine," she adds. Fewer than one in 12 students in Cave Creek area schools are Hispanic.
Bennett, who has volunteered for the posse for a decade, is among at least 500 posse members who have been trained and qualified in the same weapons used by salaried deputies, including handguns, shotguns and semi-automatic AR-15 rifles.
The volunteers, who undergo background checks before being admitted, stay off school property and in their vehicles. They are instructed to call deputies if they see something suspicious, and only use their weapons if there is an immediate threat to life.
Arpaio himself has said the role of the posse patrols is to act as "additional eyes and ears," and that while he supports the idea of armed law enforcement officers in schools, he does not support the idea of arming teachers, as some have suggested.
The posse's presence was clearly visible on a recent tour of five area schools. On several occasions, the marked patrol cars doubled up at the academies, the volunteers greeting one another before rolling on to pay another random visit. Continued...