How A Right-wing Network Mobilized Sheriffs’ Departments

About Cloee Cooper

Sheriffs are elected at the county level, and in most cases operate without any direct oversight. This presents an opportunity for White nationalists and other right-wing movements, particularly the Patriot movement and the anti-immigrant movement, to build power and influence. The 3081 elected sheriffs nationwide are responsible for running county jails, which house a third of the country’s incarcerated population, and enforcing laws within their county that are passed at the state and federal level.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a network of local law enforcement founded in 2011 by former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, garnered participation by more than 550 sheriffs nationwide since 2013, according to Political Research Associates. Of those sheriffs, 267 are currently in office, with a significant presence in the leadership of state sheriffs’ associations and the National Sheriffs’ Association, an association founded in 1940 which represents thousands of sheriffs, deputies and other law enforcement and public safety professionals nationwide.

Mack views the local sheriff as the ultimate defense against a tyrannical government. According to CSPOA, “We will take America back, Sheriff by Sheriff, County by County, State by State.” With ideological roots in the Posse Comitatus, an organization founded in 1971 on the West Coast as a vehicle for White supremacism and antisemitism, Mack’s CSPOA mobilized the ideology of White supremacy cloaked in patriotism within sheriff’s departments across the country.

This map depicts in orange, the 553 (of 3081) sheriffs nationwide who the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) claimed as “constitutional,” since 2013. Map credit: Olivia Lawrence-Weilmann/Political Research Associates. Lena Gluck, Erin Gifford, Jess Conger-Henry and Cloee Cooper/Political Research Associates contributed data collection for this map.

Mack was a public relations director of the Gun Owners of America (GOA) and a founding board member of one of the leading militia organizations in the country, the Oath Keepers. Mack claims to be a longtime member and leader of the National Rifle Association (NRA), supports some anti-vaccination positions, has spoken out in favor of Trump’s attack on undocumented immigrants,[1] and currently leads Arm The Teachers, a nationwide campaign to allow teachers with concealed carry permits, to carry on school property. On June 9th, Mack will be speaking at the far right conspiracy theory conference, Red Pill Expo on how sheriffs are the solution to oppressive government.

CSPOA founder Richard Mack speaking at a meeting for the Glendale Community College Young Americans for Liberty chapter in Glendale, Arizona on Feb. 25, 2016. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore.

Sheriffs have a history of aligning with ethnic nationalists against the federal government

The invocation of sheriffs as buffers against tyranny in the U.S. has been wielded by far right and white supremacist actors historically to defend racial and ethnic nationalism in the U.S. According to Daniel Levitas in his book, The Terrorist Next Door, sheriffs and local white supremacist vigilante groups like the Klan, invoked the Posse Comitatus Act, which was originally intended to end the use of federal troops in former Confederate states, where the federal government sent troops to protect voting rights of new Black citizens right after the Civil War.[2] The push for local control of government was part of a backlash to Reconstruction and ushered in the Jim Crow era until the Brown v. Board decision and the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960s.

After the civil rights movement of the 1960s, William Potter Gale championed a county supremacy movement which championed the alignment of sheriffs and militia, according to the constitutional legal scholar, Jared Goldstein in his scholarly article in the book, Nullification and Secession in Modern Constitutional Thought. In 1971 Gale, who was explicitly antisemitic and anti-communist, called for the formation of armed citizen groups to protect people’s rights from what he considered to be the threat of a tyrannical government, according to Goldstein. Gale’s writing on the topic was later assembled into the Posse Comitatus handbook, which declared the “County Sheriff [as] the only legal law enforcement officer in the United States of America.”[3] The idea of the Sheriff as a friend of right-wing armed militia continued to be a theme in future Patriot movement formations.

Taken almost directly from the Posse handbook, Mack told Alex Jones in 2009, “There is one person who I believe can stop this New World Order… There is no question your sheriff has the responsibility to protect you from tyranny and international bankers.”

Constitutional Sheriffs Movement Gains Steam During the First Elected Black President

Widespread involvement in Mack’s project started when Mack formed a Patriot and Far Right movement coalition called the Liberty Group Coalition, sponsored by CSPOA, the Oath Keepers, Larry Pratt’s Gun Owners of America, various Tea Party chapters, Restore the Republic, and The John Birch Society in 2013. Their stated goal was to, “[support] the hundreds of constitutional sheriffs across America who promise to defend the rights of their constituents from the Obama administration’s lawless assault on the Constitution.” The coalition sent a letter, obtained by PRA, to every sheriff in the country asking them to sign, in support of fighting for the constitution, in the wake of vapid politicians who threaten the Second Amendment: “‘This is no time for ceremony. This is one of awful moment to our country.’ We are the generation who will decide whether we continue as the constitutional Republic as designed by the Founders, or will we succumb to the temptation to ‘fundamentally change America’ into another socialistic regime?”

In May of 2013, CSPOA held a convention in St. Charles, Missouri.[4] The convention featured speakers including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers; the notoriously anti-immigrant sheriff of North Carolina, Sam Page; Bill Norton of the Tea Party Patriots; Larry Pratt, the founder of Gun Owners of America; Joe Woolverton of The John Birch Society; and Matt Shea, the Washington state representative who recently came under fire for his promotion of right-wing conspiracy theories.

The following year CSPOA held a meeting in Nevada where they claim 75 sheriffs, police chiefs, and police officers from 31 different states attended. Sheriff Nick Finch of Florida, who Ashley Powers profiled in her 2018 New Yorker expose of constitutional sheriffs, The Renegade Sheriff, was one of several speakers. During the meeting, they drafted a resolution, which said the “Confiscation of firearms without probable cause, due process, and constitutionally compliant warrants issued by a local or state jurisdiction” will not be allowed or tolerated in the county. According to CSPOA, the resolution was signed by 43 sheriffs across the country.

CSPOA asked sheriffs nationwide to sign onto a letter in 2013, pledging to say “No” to Obama Gun Control laws. The letter, which CSPOA claims 40 sheriffs signed onto or publicly supported, says:

we, the Sheriffs of America, do hereby declare and make it known, that we will oppose and disallow, any and all attempts to further erode the rights of the citizens of our counties and parishes. Accordingly, we oppose the current gun control scheme being proposed and any attempt to register gun owners or their firearms. In fine, the rights of the people to keep and bear arms Shall Not Be Infringed.

In 2016, CSPOA made another push to reach sheriffs nationwide, with their Vet Your Sheriff Survey. CSPOA asked sheriffs to fill out the survey and return it to CSPOA, in order for CSPOA to assess how “constitutional” a sheriff is. One of the criteria is whether a sheriff would enforce what CSPOA refers to as “nationalized healthcare.” PRA obtained records of 14 sheriffs, in Oregon and Florida, who filled out the survey and aligned with CSPOA ideology.

Contemporary Constitutional Sheriffs in the Trump Era

While the organized network of CSPOA sheriffs declined when Obama left office, their ideas are arguably broadcast more broadly than ever with the White house promoting CSPOA’s idea of county supremacy. As then Attorney General Jeff Sessions put in his speech to the National Sheriffs’ Association in 2018, “I want to thank every sheriff in America. Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process… The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” Support from the administration is likely emboldening sheriffs’ increasingly extreme nullification efforts.

The proliferation of nullification efforts reflect CSPOA’s goals of instructing sheriffs to resist federal gun laws they believe to be unconstitutional. Sheriffs in Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Illinois have led Second Amendment sanctuary county-wide campaigns vowing not to enforce statewide gun restriction laws in the last year. The movement continues to gain momentum, with four cities in Rhode Island declaring themselves as Second Amendment Sanctuaries by early May.

Not surprisingly in New Mexico, where 29 of the 33 sheriffs departments participated in CSPOA activities since 2013, a May 2019 report by Brady found that New Mexico sheriffs leading the Second Amendment Sanctuary campaign showed a “lack of respect for the rule of law.” As well, the head of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, Tony Mace said, “The Sheriff has more power in his County than the President of the United States of America,” reflecting CSPOA’s ideology. The report also found that the NRA was in touch with Mace, to help craft the Second Amendment Sanctuary campaign.

Sheriffs and county commissioners have mobilized nullification efforts to advocate against abortion and in favor of no restrictions on oil and gas companies as well. Effingham County, Illinois passed a resolution, declaring a sanctuary for the life of unborn human beings in June, 2018. Just since January, two New Mexico counties passed resolutions declaring “Sanctuary for the Unborn,” which “honors the rights of healthcare providers to object on moral grounds to performing abortions and opposes any regulation or law seeking to violate that right.” In Weld County, Colorado, a lawmaker is considering introducing an Oil and Gas Sanctuary, which would allow the county not to enforce oil and gas regulations.

Mack’s attempt to organize local law enforcement through the CSPOA demonstrates a troubling affinity between far-right groups and local law enforcement. Given that far-right groups are on the rise and the current federal administration has pardoned Patriot movement leaders, we should be on the alert for new ways their convergence could imperil community safety and justice.

[1] Richard Mack, “The Caravan: Blame, Foreign Aid and Civility,” CSPOA Newsletter, Nov. 2018.

[2] Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door, pages 50-51.

[3] Jared Goldstein, Nullification and Secession in the Modern Constitutional Thought, University Press of Kansas, 2016, 186.

[4] Hard copy of meeting agenda on file.

Cloee Cooper (PRA Research Analyst) holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, specializing in social justice and investigative reporting. Cloee tracked, monitored and organized against anti-immigrant organizations with ties to white nationalism with the Center for New Community from 2009-2012. Her work can be seen at Chicago’s local PBS affiliate – WTTW, Alternet, Social Justice News Nexus, Imagine2050, Hard Crackers and in a Chicago Tribune investigation. She currently serves on the Editorial Board of Hard Crackers, a journal documenting the everyday life of those striving to overturn the mess we are in.