In Arizona, controversial sheriff's Arpaio posse watches over schools

Sheriff  Arpaio

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.

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