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Pinal County Sheriff Must Balance Demands Of Rural, Growing Community

An unmarked Pinal County Sheriff’s SUV is pulled off on the shoulder of Hunt Highway, parked behind a white sedan.

The back driver-side tire of the sedan is flat and a couple of high school cheerleaders and their coach, the car’s passengers, stand nearby on their phones.

Sheriff Mark Lamb crouched on his hands and knees and shoved a jack under the car.

After a few cranks, the car rose. Next the lug nuts came off, followed by the flat, one girl rolled over the spare tire, lug nuts twisted back on and the spare was secured.

Brooke Calamari, a cheer coach at a nearby school and the car's driver offered him $20.

“You already pay me, I’m the sheriff,” Lamb said, smiling and refusing the money.

Lamb said most of his time in office has been spent in meetings, but this day he stopped to change a tire for San Tan Foothills High School students and their coach. (Photo by Mariana Dale- KJZZ)

In the car, he explained why he stopped. (It wasn’t just because there was a reporter in the car.)

“I feel like I’m a servant to the people,” Lamb said. “I’m grateful to be in the position and any opportunity I can to serve, doesn’t matter what it is, even changing a tire, I’m all for it.”

New sheriffs started in Arizona’s three largest counties this year, Maricopa, Pima and Pinal.

Mark Lamb was elected to fill the spot vacated by Paul Babeu, who lost the race in Arizona's 1st Congressional District. 

Lamb worked for the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community police for six years and started at the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office in 2012.

“Some of the guys that I trained with initially thought I was crazy because, within a day or two, I was like ‘well when I’m sheriff, we’re going to change that,’” Lamb said.

The county his deputies patrol is the size of Connecticut and ranges from the stucco homes of San Tan Valley to the mining country of Eastern Arizona. San Tan Valley alone includes at least 100,000 people.

Lamb came into the department amidst a hiring freeze and a budget shortfall of up to $2 million. He said in mid-March that he’s made a dent in the budget shortfall, but didn’t expect it would be resolved completely.

The county struggled to climb out of the recession and the sheriff said his budget is 12 percent less than six years ago.

“I don’t think we’re going to make up that $1 million, that $1.4 million, but we’re going to do the best we can,” Lamb said.

Sheriff Paul Babeu often sparred with the County Board of Supervisors, which ultimately control the purse strings for the office.

“We had a sheriff that he felt like he could spend money on anything he wanted to and did,” said Pinal County Supervisor Steve Miller. “It was very difficult to try and get cooperation.”

Babeu also halted a county employment study conducted by an outside agency. A process Lamb has since restarted.

“The new sheriff already has reached out, continues to reach out,” Miller said. “Really, really great situation has taken place.” 

Lamb lifted the hiring freeze by eliminating some higher-level positions. He said he hopes to end the fiscal year in June with 16 deputy and 20 detention officer vacancies filled.

Deputy Shannon Frank said she’s glad for the new hires, but she hasn’t seen a raise since she started with the department almost five years ago.

“We’re losing a lot of good deputies due to the pay and if we can get some raises, I think that would help retain our officers or our deputies that have more experience,” Frank said.

Lamb said he wants at least 3.5 percent raises and negotiations are ongoing.

In the meantime, he’s made small changes he hopes will boost morale, like loosening the dress code so men can have some facial hair.

“Obviously, I grew a goatee out so that I would look different from my predecessor,” Lamb said.

Babeu’s legacy at the sheriff’s office is controversial.

The FBI recently took property related to his administration as part of a probe into whether the former sheriff and county attorney misused funds.

“We’re open, we’re willing to help them out in any investigation they have, what we want to make sure is that we’re transparent to the people of Pinal County,” Lamb said.

Babeu’s actions also changed the reputation for some towns in Pinal County.

In July 2014, the sheriff’s office said “whistleblowers” tipped them off to the arrival of undocumented immigrant children headed for temporary placement in an Oracle camp. The resulting protests made national news, even though the immigrants never arrived.  

“That was a bad thing, because we did look like a bunch of racist idiots and we’re not,” said Sue Parra, who’s made her home in Oracle for 47 years.

She’d much rather people knew her town by its artists or its food.

Sheriff Lamb said Pinal County is impacted by undocumented immigration, human and drug trafficking, but he hasn’t made the issues the focal point of his agency.

“What we do is we assist our partners,” Lamb said. “If, in the course of a criminal investigation, if we find that somebody’s status here in our country is illegal, because it’s illegal, we have a duty to make sure our federal partners are aware of that.”  

Sue Parra owns Sue & Jerry's Trading Post with her husband in downtown Oracle. (Photo by Mariana Dale- KJZZ) 

A large part of Pinal County is rural and relies on the sheriff’s office.

For example, in Kearny, city officials said a sheriff’s office employee has filled in as police chief until they can find a replacement.  

But, Parra, in Oracle, said people have learned to take care of themselves because deputies’ response times can feel long.

“If you’re sitting out there forgotten, you really hesitate to call the police,” Parra said.

So she has some advice for the new sheriff: show up in the community.

“Maybe every six months come and have a meeting with the locals and say ‘what are you concerns?’ what are we not doing?’" Parra said. “People just want to be heard.”

The sheriff seems to be heeding her advice. He’s already visited several communities around the county, including Oracle.

EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this story used the incorrect term for jack.

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Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.