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.
Ali Baker, who had just dropped off her 5-year-old daughter at the Quality Interactive Montessori School in Cave Creek, voiced cautious backing for the program.
"It's sad in a way that we have to have that. It's also comforting that we live in a small enough community that pretty much overnight we are able to make that happen if need be," she said.
'FEARFUL OF BEING DEPORTED'
Arizona has emerged as a major antagonist of Obama's Democratic administration since 2010, when Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a law cracking down on illegal immigrants, saying the federal government had failed to secure the border with Mexico.
Not all welcomed the school posse's role in the metro Phoenix area, where state law requires police to question those they arrest, stop or detain and suspect are in the country illegally about their immigration status.
"Parents are fearful and annoyed," said Carlos Garcia of grassroots group Puente Arizona, which opposed Arizona's 2010 crackdown on illegal immigrants and Arpaio's repeated sweeps to nab them in the state's most populous county.
"We know in the past the sheriffs have gone out of their way to ask people for their documents, and us being brown has been suspicious activity enough," said Garcia, who is Hispanic.
"They (the parents) are fearful that it might actually lead to them being deported," he added.
Among those with concerns is Diana Ramirez, an undocumented mother from Mexico, who has children aged 4 and 14 in schools in Phoenix. While the posse does not patrol there, she said the proposal made her fearful.
"For me, it's not a good thing," she said in Spanish. "I think it's a way of detaining people with the excuse that they are going to be protecting the schools and the children," she said.
Asked about concerns among immigrant groups, a sheriff's spokesman said the office has received only compliments for the added protection. Bennett said all the feedback he has received has been positive.
"The people that I have spoken with are pleased to no end that we are out here doing what we are doing. And it's good to hear the thank yous for being here," said Bennett.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Claudia Parsons)