PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio disbanded a SWAT team that focused on handling dangerous jail inmates at a time when the elite unit was in high demand due to a spike in assaults by inmates on guards, records show.
Arpaio folded the Special Response Team in September as part of $8 million in budget cuts to cover skyrocketing legal costs from a racial-profiling case against the sheriff's office.
The job of confronting inmate disturbances, threats of violence and refusals by prisoners to leave their cells has since shifted to jail officers who have other duties and limited expertise in such situations.
Records obtained by The Associated Press from an officer who works in one of the jails provide a sense of the dangerous conditions inside Maricopa County lockups when Arpaio eliminated the team.
Assaults by inmates on officers have doubled over the past 10 years, increasing from 111 in 2006 to 224 last year. There were 134 assaults on guards through July of this year, more than all of 2011. Officers were bitten, hit by dinner trays, punched in the face and head-butted.
The sheriff's office insisted in a prepared statement Thursday that it still has a Special Response Team in its jails, despite earlier confirmation from the agency that the unit was shut down. The sheriff's office did not respond to a request to interview Arpaio about the issue.
The jail officer said Friday that the team hasn't been seen in the jails for weeks and noted that its weapons have been removed from an armory where they were stored and an email was sent around the office asking whether other units needed the gear.
The officer wasn't authorized to speak publicly about the disbanding of the SWAT team and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
The sheriff's office said there also are other specially trained teams in each jail to quickly respond to emergency situations with problem inmates. It also said it doesn't have any evidence that suggests the Special Response Team helped deter assaults on jail officers.
County officials required Arpaio to cut the $8 million from his budget to pay for a major overhaul of his office brought on by the racial-profiling case. Arpaio is scheduled to stand trial in December on a misdemeanor contempt-of-court charge related to the matter.
Critics say Arpaio could have covered all of the cuts by closing "tent city," a complex of jail tents that helped make him a national political figure and was featured in a commercial during his ongoing re-election campaign.
Instead, the shortfall was covered in other ways, including $1 million from cutting the Special Response Team and $2.4 million by eliminating a pilot project that would have given a one-time pay increase to some jail officers.
The sheriff's office insists it hasn't compromised officer safety and said closing Tent City wouldn't have been as easy as critics have claimed or produced such a high level of savings.
The jail officer told the AP that members of the replacement team don't have the necessary training and protective gear to handle problem inmates. The officer also said bureaucratic steps are required to activate the team, so officers don't request it and leave guards on duty to confront inmates.
Videos provided to the AP show the difficulty and danger for officers as they try to manage uncooperative inmates.
In one instance, rank-and-file officers who were unarmed and wearing surgical masks tried to coax an inmate out of his cell. Officers outside the cell shot in pepper spray after the inmate repeatedly refused to be handcuffed.
"That's all you got?" the inmate said, covering his mouth with tissue to avoid coughing. Eventually, officers fired more pepper spray into the cell, prompting the inmate to give up.
Another video shows officers from the Special Response Team confronting an inmate who wouldn't leave his cell. Unlike their rank-and-file colleagues, the officers had gas masks, stab-proof vests and non-lethal weapons.
The inmate went to the ground after what was likely a mixture of tear gas and pepper spray was sent into the cell.
Peter Perroncello, a consultant who worked previously as a jail operations administrator in two counties in Massachusetts, said jails generally take two different approaches in lining up officers to respond to problematic inmates.
Some jails create specialized teams devoted entirely to dealing with such situations. Others form teams with rank-and-file officers who are on duty and call in backup officers if necessary.
Follow Jacques Billeaud at twitter.com/jacquesbilleaud. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jacques-billeaud .