The Trouble With Sheriffs Part 2: The Rise of Right-Wing Extremism Among County Sheriffs

This article is the second of a two-part series on the county sheriffs system and how it could be reformed.

PUBLISHED JAN 27, 2022 12:00 A.M.
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Sheriffs are supposed to stand for ’law and order,’ but some believe they are a law unto themselves.

Sheriffs are supposed to stand for ’law and order,’ but some believe they are a law unto themselves.   ABC Television / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

The office of county sheriff has been around for more than 1,000 years. In ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England, King Alfred the Great instituted a number of innovative government reforms, including organizing his kingdom into “shires,” or what today would be called “counties.” For each shire, the king appointed a “reeve,” or boss, who was in charge of collecting taxes and enforcing royal laws and decrees.

These representatives of the king were called, appropriately enough, “shire-reeves,” which was eventually shortened to “shrieve,” a term that later evolved into “sheriff.” When English settlers arrived on the eastern shores of North America 800 years after the reign of King Alfred, they imported the sheriff system with them.

As in Alfred’s original concept, however, the role of sheriff remained the same—to bring the power of government to bear at the local level. Sheriffs performed various governmental duties, but in colonial times, from about 1620 to 1776—the first job of anyone who held the office was to collect taxes from the colonists, money that would be mostly sent back across the Atlantic to the British king.

The role of sheriff as tax collector doesn’t quite fit with the popular image of the sheriff in the American mind, which was probably shaped by western movies, most iconically Gary Cooper’s Sheriff Will Kane in High Noon. That western, and many others, depicted the sheriff as the lone, honorable man standing between an orderly peace and lawless chaos. 

The 1960s, however, showed a different, darker and more brutal side of the sheriff, embodied by Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Ala., whose brutality against civil rights demonstrators—especially during Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery—caused national revulsion and helped propel the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act in the United States Congress.

Unfortunately, that type of sheriff, willing to use his elected office to act on his far-right extremist political beliefs, still exists.

Extreme Right-Wing Sheriffs

County sheriffs, like all Americans, are of course free to hold whatever political views they want, even extreme and unsavory ones. But one possible consequence of the lack of diversity and accountability among sheriffs discussed in Part One of this series is that growing numbers not only adhere to deeply right-wing views, but they act on those views in a potentially dangerous manner. 

For example, according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign report cited in Part One, as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the country through 2020 and 2021, at least 60 county sheriffs—about 2 percent of the country’s 3,083 sheriffs, mostly in the West and Midwest—refused to enforce health restrictions designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

At least five of those sheriffs were Californians. Alex Villanueva, Don Barnes and Chad Bianco of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties respectively, all declared in December of 2020 that they would not enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders restricting public gatherings and businesses—during a surge in the pandemic that saw California top 40,000 COVID-19 cases per day. More than 600 and even 700 people died on several of those days at a time when vaccines were not yet widely available.

Villanueva also refused to enforce county vaccine mandates for employees and deputies in the department, calling the mandates an “imminent threat to public safety.” He cited “the political ideology behind the vaccine” as a major reason for low vaccination totals among the department’s 4,185 employees. He also called the county Board of Supervisors “a very weird group of people” who “worship at the altar of ‘wokeism.’”

In Riverside County, Bianco also refused to enforce vaccine mandates, describing himself as “the last line of defense from tyrannical government overreach.” Sacramento County’s Scott Jones refused to enforce mask mandates and other health measures, even though he later tested positive for COVID-19 himself. In January, Jones announced his second run for United States Congress as a Republican, after narrowly losing to an incumbent Democrat in 2016.

Placer County Sheriff Devon Bell said that he would not instruct deputies to enforce the COVID-related health orders. Bell brought a statewide, even nationwide controversy down on his department when he publicly linked the death of a local, 64-year-old healthcare worker to the fact that the person had received a COVID vaccination earlier the same day, Jan. 21, 2021. Bell went ahead with the public statement despite pleadings from Placer County health officials to hold off. Placer County initially refused to release the emails from the health officials and Bell’s department defended his decision, calling the information “compelling” and the man’s death several hours after vaccination a “significant incident.”

A week later, the Placer County Sheriff’s office retracted the statement and acknowledged that the unidentified man’s death had nothing to do with the COVID vaccine, and that the timing was simply a sad coincidence.

A California Sheriff Joined the Oath Keepers

Riverside County’s Bianco has acknowledged that in 2014 he joined the “Oath Keepers,” a group described by the Southern Poverty Law Center—which monitors hate groups throughout the country—as “one of the largest far-right antigovernment groups in the U.S. today,” whose belief system is “based on a set of baseless conspiracy theories about the federal government working to destroy Americans’ liberties.” 

The Oath Keepers are said by federal investigators to have played a key role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol building. Prosecutors have accused 17 members of conspiring to obstruct a congressional proceeding by attacking the Capitol.

Bianco has said that he did not remain a member of the Oath Keepers, and that he does not even remember being part of the group though he joined in 2014 and continued to pay dues for a year. He also said that he was “not ashamed” of having belonged to the group, pointing out that he was not involved in the Jan. 6 capitol attack and had been “vocally against what happened there.”

At least two county sheriffs, one from Oklahoma and one from Georgia, are known to have attended the Jan. 6 Donald Trump “Stop the Steal” rally that resulted in thousands of Trump supporters violently attacking Capitol police officers and illegally breaching the U.S. Capitol building. (Both sheriffs deny that they entered the Capitol itself that day.)

Sheriffs in New Mexico, Washington and other states have said that they will refuse to enforce gun control laws passed by their respective state legislatures. One sheriff in Washington’s Klickitat County openly declared that the state government is “not the boss of the sheriff. The only bosses I have are the voters of Klickitat County.” That sheriff, Bob Songer, has also said that his oath of office was not taken to uphold the laws of the state, but to the “Supreme Judge of the Universe.”

Is the ‘Constitutional Sheriff’ Actually ‘a Thing’?

Songer also describes himself as a “Constitutional Sheriff,” meaning he is part of the movement among sheriffs who believe that they—not the courts, legislators, governors or the president—hold the ultimate power to interpret laws, including the U.S. Constitution. The movement goes back at least until 2011 when a former sheriff in Arizona, Richard Mack, founded the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

Bianco has said that he learned of the Oath Keepers through the CSPOA, whose guiding principle as stated on its website is that “the vertical separation of powers in the Constitution makes it clear that the power of the sheriff even supersedes the powers of the President.”  

Former Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey—who retired in 2020 only to immediately begin training to join the Los Angeles Police Department—was also a member of the CSPOA, according to a report by Daily Beast. In 2017, Lopey was sued by members of the county’s Hmong community who alleged that he and other county officials orchestrated a voter suppression campaign against them, based on their race, with some members of the community claiming that Lopey’s deputies intimidated them with assault weapons. A federal judge ultimately dismissed the suit.

Unsurprisingly, legal scholars say that the self-described Constitutional Sheriffs are wildly misreading the U.S. Constitution.

“After searching in vain for any legal basis for sheriff supremacy and checking with several others who have studied law enforcement and civilian oversight, I can confirm that a constitutional sheriff with unique autonomy is not actually a thing,” wrote Georgetown University Law Center Professor Christy Lopez, in a Washington Post op-ed.

According to Boston University Law Professor Robert Tsai, the “strange idea” that a county sheriff’s legal authority is greater even than the president’s “has been made up by stitching together random references to sheriffs and militias in our political and legal texts. It relies on a highly selective reading of history, pretending that the high sheriff of the English shire was transplanted to colonial America, and then somehow emerged in the present day untouched by legal developments over the past 200 years.”

In 2016, the CSPOA gave its “Sheriff of the Year” award to Dar Leaf, sheriff of Barry County, Mich. Leaf made national headlines in 2020 when he publicly compared a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by a group of far-right militia members to a “citizen’s arrest.”

Perhaps the most famous “Constitutional Sheriff” was Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., whose policy of detaining citizens based only on suspicions that they had entered the U.S. illegally was thrown out by a judge. Arpaio defied the judge’s order and was found guilty of contempt—only to be pardoned by Trump.

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