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Inside the 'constitutional sheriff' movement


As the midterms near, you may be thinking about or have already decided who you're going to vote for in major races like the House, the Senate, or governor. But across the country, hundreds of races are taking place for an office that doesn't get as much attention - sheriffs. Maria Shamma is a reporter with the Marshall Project, an outlet that focuses on the criminal justice system. He says the role of sheriff is crucial and often powerful. And increasingly, some of them are embracing radical ideas, including one known as the constitutional sheriff.

The basic idea is that a county sheriffs authority should supersede the federal government's. His reporting is based on a collaboration between the Marshall Project and two political scientists who surveyed more than 500 sheriffs about their thoughts on issues ranging from gun control to immigration. Here to talk more about the findings and what they mean is Maurice Chammah. Welcome. And thanks for joining us.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Hi. Thanks for having me.

THOMPSON: So, Maurice, I know - you know, I spent years covering law enforcement. I know that a sheriff generally is elected and serves as the chief law enforcement officer for a county. And I think there are about 3,000 sheriffs around the country. But what is this movement all about?

CHAMMAH: Well, I had been interested in sheriffs for years because I had often covered jails, you know, where there would be a death or claims of abuse that were kind of on par with the police deaths that sparked protests in 2020. And as I got looking into sheriffs, I learned that there was this movement out there that had been really promoted by a particular figure on the right named Richard Mack, who claims that sheriffs' authority is greater than the federal and state governments, really any government outside of the local sheriff. They have been very outspoken against masking, against lockdown orders as part of the COVID-19 crisis. And now this movement of sheriffs have really focused its attention to the 2020 election and Donald Trump's claim that the election was stolen. You're seeing a lot of sheriffs aligned with this movement, trying to seize voting tabulators, trying to investigate what happened in 2020, and potentially also to more aggressively surveil polling places in future elections.

THOMPSON: You mentioned Richard Mack. He was, I believe, once a board member of the Oath Keepers. I think he was a history teacher. He's from Arizona, lived in Utah, was a sheriff, I think twice elected. Where did he come up with this idea for this constitutional sheriff?

CHAMMAH: Mack, in the early '90s, sued the federal government, saying that he wouldn't enforce aspects of the Brady Bill, which was a major gun control, you know, bill that passed in the early '90s under Clinton. And that Supreme Court case in which Richard Mack won, and the Supreme Court said, yeah, you don't as a sheriff have to enforce this, that really made his star rise in conservative circles. And so over the next couple of decades, through, you know, the rise of the Tea Party, the rise of Trump, Mack was just this kind of figure on the right who often was speaking at events with a whole range of other figures. Some of those figures are white supremacists, some of them groups like the Oath Keepers, who now today we think of - we associate with the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, but have been growing sort of on the right as this militant force and see sheriffs and other law enforcement as a kind of ally to these right-wing movements in pursuing their goals.

THOMPSON: In your piece, you write about how Mack - and you also say that Mack has a track record of supporting anti-government extremists. But you also write about how his ideas are increasingly being supported by sheriffs. Why is that, especially since sheriffs presumably are supposed to be enforcing the laws of the government?

CHAMMAH: Yeah, that's right. So we did this large, broad survey of sheriffs. And we got responses from more than 500 of them across the country. And we learned that, overall, sheriffs tend to be very white, very male and very conservative, even more conservative than their constituents. So you may have a kind of purple county where the sheriff is going to be further to the right than even the citizens of their own county. And given that, they tend to take a lot of positions that are associated with the right, whether that's an opposition to gun control, really harsh views about, you know, whether immigrants should be kind of allowed into this country easily and what we should do with undocumented immigrants.

THOMPSON: What else surprised you about the survey responses?

CHAMMAH: Just the depth of their animosity towards the federal government, frankly. So we asked the sheriffs, who do you think was responsible for the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6? And 83.5% said social media companies, which is a common response, I think, among Americans to January 6. But then 57.4% said antifa, you know, left-wing groups. And that's really been largely the product of kind of misinformation on the right about who is responsible. So I have been surprised by how much sheriffs have sort of taken on these talking points that are very popular on the right. And, of course, these are authority figures. They have the power of the badge and the gun. And so constituents in their counties sort of sit up and listen when they frame reality in the ways that they do.

THOMPSON: What do you say to people who believe this movement isn't really radical?

CHAMMAH: I guess what I would say is that the word radical is essentially in the eye of the beholder. And I think many Americans share these views that these sheriffs have. Many Americans believe that January 6 was more the work of the left than the right. Many Americans believe that we should have harsher immigration enforcement. Really, the goal here is to say whether or not you think of your sheriff as radical or not, sort of it's time to pay attention to what it is they actually think and are saying. Many Americans cannot name their local sheriff, have no sense of what their local sheriff's positions are. And so the goal of this is really to sort of wake people up to this question of, who is your local sheriff? What are the policies that they are enacting? And are those policies in line with what you, as a voter, actually want to see in your community?

THOMPSON: What are you going to be paying attention to in the coming weeks during these midterm elections to sort of track how this idea is taking shape? Because it seems the movement is gaining some momentum, at least when it comes to some sheriffs.

CHAMMAH: That's true. And there's a lot of sheriffs on the ballot on November 8 who represent this movement and who are facing challengers who oppose them. So I'm looking at Frederick County, Md., where the sheriff there who's been in power for a number of years, Chuck Jenkins, is facing a challenger who wants more police accountability and who rejects the kind of harsh immigration enforcement that Chuck Jenkins has been pursuing. Jenkins is a leading member of a constitutional sheriff movement. So if he were to lose, it would be a blow to that movement. If he were to win, it would be a boon to them.

There's a handful of other counties where there's talk of electing sort of more progressive sheriffs, sheriffs who are promising to make their jails more rehabilitative and to stop working with the federal government to detain and deport immigrants. So I'm watching a lot of races where people are running kind of from the left to try to dismount this sort of more historically well-known version of a kind of right-wing sheriff. And if they win, I'll be watching to see what they do and whether they can actually meet the demands of their supporters.

THOMPSON: That was Maurice Chammah. He's a staff writer at the Marshall Project. That's a nonprofit journalism org that covers criminal justice. And, Maurice, thank you again for sharing your reporting with us.

CHAMMAH: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.