Some Maricopa County Sheriff's posse members back on patrol March 15

PHOENIX (FOX 10) -- Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone says his department is making good progress in finishing background checks on armed posse members -- and some members should be back on the streets by mid-March.

The sheriff pulled the posse after it was revealed during an audit that there were criminals serving in the ranks.

When Penzone made the announcement to suspend the armed posse, the department stated it could take up to 120 days for members to be vetted and patrols re-instated, but on March 1, we learned some posse members will be back on the streets this month.

It all started with a pursuit, followed by a shootout with law enforcement on Interstate 17. The suspect was killed, but investigators say two of the guns in his possession belonged to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. The discovery triggered an audit that revealed at least 50 guns had disappeared from the department due to lax regulation and policies.

The shootout also led to a second audit. This one was regarding members serving with the sheriff's qualified armed posse. At the time of the audit, the posse had 235 members. Only four had completed background checks, and in late January, the sheriff suspended the program.

"I make that decision it's not because I want to pull people off the street but if one of those individuals who we know shouldn't be out there continues to be out there and does something to the detriment to the community, I'm responsible," said Penzone.

The sheriff says the audit revealed some posse members had convictions and arrests for a range of crimes, from domestic violence to drug charges, even sex crimes.

So far, 350 people have started the requalification process. That includes interviews, polygraphs, psychological exams, and drug screenings. 62 have completed the process and are expected to be back on patrol by March 15.

In the meantime, patrols in Sun City West have been increased in response to concerns raised by residents.

This process is not a one-time thing. MCSO says armed posse members will have to undergo a new background check every two years.