Even with a competent Administration, America would have faced a frustrating vulnerability in its fight against Covid-19 – its sheriffs. All over the country last spring, local sheriffs undermined scientists and local leaders, refusing to enforce lockdown rules and dismissing mitigation efforts. Their refusal to do their jobs cost countless lives and limited the Americans’ options to contain the pandemic.
Despite their “pro-freedom” pandemic talking points, sheriff’s deputies aren’t libertarian crusaders. The overwhelming bulk of deputies’ time is spent running jails, which is often a lucrative grift. The rest is mostly devoted to the similarly lucrative business of serving civil and criminal warrants, foreclosures and handling property seizures. Nationwide, police departments carry most of the weight of crime-fighting and patrol. Sheriffs mostly have more important roles to serve, staying closer to power, politics and money.
Sheriffs, who are almost always elected, have a disturbing tendency to serve as local pirates, using their badge to extort money from those unfortunate enough to fall into their grasp. It’s not surprising that sheriffs would be reluctant to get involved in work with no financial angle. However, there’s a more troubling dynamic at work in so many sheriffs’ refusal to protect their communities during the pandemic.
Religious nuts have had their eye on sheriff’s departments for a long time. As desegregation undermined white power in the wider political system, the Dixiecrats in the religious right recognized the potential of sheriffs to act as an obstacle to progress. They began investing energy in getting their followers into these positions, which largely fly under the local political radar.
It only takes modest coordination in most communities to seize the sheriff’s office, a post that can sometimes be won with a few congregations’ worth of votes. White nationalists in the religious right may have lost the capacity to determine which laws get passed, but by electing sympathetic sheriffs they can at least influence which laws get enforced. That campaign has been very successful, and it isn’t limited to the usual deep red enclaves. Sheriffs aligned with the Patriot Movement, CSPOA, and various anti-immigrant groups are enforcing the law in places like Western New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, even in the suburbs of some large cities. You might want to check on your sheriff because their politics could impact your life in days to come.
A strange and little-noted provision appeared in the 2010 Texas Republican Party Platform:
State Militia – We support the establishment and maintenance of a volunteer Constitutional State Militia, with assistance from County Sheriffs.
Hardly anyone commented on this blurb, as it pales against the lunacy of the larger document. Texas Republicans’ 2010 platform was a Kaczynski-esque cry for help, 25 pages long, delivered in a florid hyperbole normally screamed through a megaphone or scrawled on the basement walls of a serial killer. Much of it is incomprehensible, with paranoid diversions into subjects like “raw milk,” vaccine databases and sodomy. It even features a rant against child protective services, which somehow incorporates a jab at UN. The people who wrote it were not OK.
One can be excused for missing the significance of one sentence about sheriffs, but it matters. That provision, expanded in later platforms, marks a major political debut for the white nationalist “Constitutional Sheriff” movement. Texas Republicans dropped that sentence into their platform because the movement was already well established in law enforcement.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, enthusiastically embraced by the religious right, insists that the county sheriff is the highest elected officer in our political system. Sheriffs, they reason, have the sole power to determine which laws will apply in their county. The movement evolved out the neo-Nazi Posse Comitatus group in the 80’s. Its membership has blossomed over the past two decades with political help from the Christian right.
When white terrorists seized the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, they had the enthusiastic support of the local sheriff, Glenn Palmer, a CSPOA member. The FBI considered Palmer a security risk having to organize their response to the attack around his subversion. Other prominent members of CPSOA include Joe Arpaio and David Clarke.
In Northern California, CSPOA Sheriff Jon Lopey set up roadblocks ahead of the 2016 primary to stop and search Hmong immigrants. Deputies asked the immigrants whether they were registered to vote, arrested any they found with minor violations, then visited the homes of the registered voters to “verify” their status.
When the FBI this month shut down a rightwing militia plot to kidnap Michigan’s Governor, a Michigan sheriff who had appeared on stage at a rally with one of the plotters, stood up to defend them. Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf, a CSPOA member who attended their 2019 conference, justified the terrorist plot as a “citizen’s arrest” necessary to prosecute a “felony.”
Though the state’s Sheriff’s Association immediately condemned Leaf’s comments, he’s only in trouble for saying the quiet part out loud. And he’s still at his job. Do not assume your local law enforcement will protect you from a coming wave of wingnut violence. Odds are pretty good that your local sheriff will back the fascists when the choice arises. And that choice probably arrives in the next few months.
About 1 in 8 US sheriffs are full members of CSPOA, according to the organization. This law enforcement organization maintains close ties with terrorists. Religious Right and neo-Nazi “patriot” groups have cultivated a following in law enforcement for decades but worming their way into urban police departments can be more challenging. Higher levels of the police hierarchy tend to be well-trained, educated, and qualified. It would take a long time, a lot of money, and much effort to recruit them at scale. Sheriffs, on the other hand, just have to win an election, in a little-noticed down-ballot slot, and often don’t even have a law enforcement background. Once that office is secured, it can be used to install sympathetic staff as deputies. Gaining a hold on sheriffs’ offices is a cheaper, fast route to infiltration than working through the police.
All over the country, police departments are consistently whiter than the communities they serve, but no government institution is whiter than our sheriffs’ departments. Over 90% of American sheriffs are white men. The overwhelming majority of sheriffs cover at least partially rural, if not entirely rural areas. Sheriffs are the most powerful elected office that white nationalist voters can still dominate, making them a natural political target.
As the country reaches a tipping point in the declining electoral power of white nationalism, this Fifth Column among law enforcement could be their firewall. Violent fascist organizations are pinning their hopes for a white America on your sheriff. You might want to check on them before they check on you.