GILA BEND, Ariz. -- Dennis Donowick is a retired truck driver who refused to spend the rest of his days "drinking beer and doing nothing," as he put it. Four years ago, he packed his guns and his urge "to give back to the community" and joined Sheriff Joe Arpaio's volunteer posse, a group best known for its supporting role in the sheriff's immigration raids.
Last week, the posse, now 3,000 strong, added the task of safeguarding dozens of public schools to its portfolio.
Putting more armed guards in schools has been proposed by the National Rifle Association and others as a way to crack down on school shootings. Sheriff Arpaio put his own twist on it by simply ordering his posse to keep an eye on school grounds.
He rolled out the program less than a month after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where a gunman carrying pistols and semiautomatic rifles killed 26 people, 20 of them children. The program was, he explained, "to protect our schools from the same type of violence," though some people are questioning the risks of placing this responsibility in the hands of armed volunteers when it is taxpayers who would foot the bill for their mistakes.
State Representative Chad Campbell, the Democratic minority leader in the House, said the idea of arming volunteers to patrol the schools was "ludicrous." In a column on Tuesday, E. J. Montini of The Arizona Republic wrote that the posse patrols were a feel-good program that did not do any good.
But Sheriff Arpaio said: "There's a lot of talking out there. This sheriff does not talk. I take action."
If a school finds itself under threat, the job of the volunteer posse is to "eliminate the target," said Mr. Donowick, 58, using the military language for shoot to kill.
Every morning, the volunteers go out in cars and uniforms just like those used by the Maricopa County deputies under Sheriff Arpaio's command; there is no way to tell them apart. They roll by, scrutinize the people around the schools, looking for someone they feel does not belong, like "a guy in trench coat in the middle of summer" or a driver sitting in a parked car too long, Mr. Donowick said.
On patrol one morning, he carried a 9-millimeter Glock in his holster. In the trunk of his marked Chevy Caprice, he had an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle similar to the one used in Connecticut. Posse members bring their own weapons and buy their uniforms. They receive nine months of training before hitting the streets, and those who are armed -- Sheriff Arpaio said there were about 500 of them -- must be recertified every year.
"I'm prepared," Mr. Donowick said.
As he pulled outside Kiser Elementary School here, across from alfalfa fields and next to Interstate 8, he smiled and waved to a teacher and her students as they made their way to class. He talked about the "halo effect" of a marked sheriff's car, which can deter some criminal mischief simply by its presence. "Prevention," he said as he drove off, heading west to another school.
Sheriff Arpaio created the posse in 1993 to patrol malls during the holiday season, when thefts in parking lots are common. Since then, the volunteers have gone on to take detainees to the county's jails, escort dignitaries and help deputies serve warrants and support them during raids. It has retirees, including former police officers and military veterans, like Mr. Donowick, who served in Vietnam. An investigation by a local CBS affiliate, KPHO-TV, revealed that several of them also have criminal records -- for assault, drug possession, disorderly conduct and other offenses.
Sheriff Arpaio said that they are "disciplined accordingly" and that he has "faith in them, faith in the posse."
It began patrolling 59 schools in unincorporated communities in Maricopa County last week. They are mostly small, rural places where the sheriff's office was already providing policing services, so he did not need to seek additional permission to add the school visits to his posse's agenda. He did not contact the schools ahead of time and he did not need money to finance the program because the members of the posse do not get paid for their work.
They are, however, insured by Maricopa County while on the job. Mr. Campbell, who has his own plan to protect schools and toughen the state's gun laws, said of the posses that he was "not sure how effective" their officers would be by simply driving around the schools without being on school grounds or interacting with teachers and administrators.
On Monday, in her State of the State speech, Gov. Jan Brewer proposed adding more financing to a program that puts armed police officers inside schools, an idea that has strong support among Republicans and Democrats but still needs legislative approval. She also expressed opposition to arming teachers, a suggestion by the state's attorney general, Tom Horne, in the days after the shootings at Sandy Hook.
In an interview on Tuesday, Timothy Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, said, in a nod to the punishing rounds of state budget cuts school districts have had to endure for several years, that "politicians are talking about more money for school resource officers, but they have yet to fund the basic needs of our children." He added that he would rather see the districts work with local police departments to figure out the best way to protect their schools.
Mr. Donowick, a lieutenant commander in the posse who coordinates the patrols in 24 schools, steered clear of the politics of school safety, saying he was "out here being constructive." His job, he went on, is an antidote of sorts.
"I'm the good guy who is armed looking for the bad guy who is armed," he said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.