In the midst of a pandemic, thousands of Americans nationwide have taken to the streets with a demand: Abolish the police. Two years prior, the case against sheriffs gained steam—inspired by a speech former Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave to the National Sheriffs Association in which he called the office of the sheriff “a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”

While sheriffs’ offices are structured differently than police departments, Brenda Choresi Carter, the director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, said that public sheriffs offices should “absolutely” be a part of the ongoing public discussion around abolishing the police—especially in light of the election. This November there are 1,241 sheriffs’ elections, which includes nine races that have the power to curb Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s (ICE) power. In some jurisdictions, these races may be decided by a few dozen votes.

In June, the Reflective Democracy Campaign released a report about America’s sheriffs called “Confronting the Demographics of Power,” highlighting the “apartheid-level demographics” of the nation’s 3,000 elected county sheriffs spanning 46 states, most of whom run unopposed. Ninety percent of sheriffs are white men and they have tremendous power and oversight in their jurisdictions, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19 crisis. As Democratic governors nationwide ordered residents to wear masks in public, dozens of sheriffs staged “a rebellion against state governments,” calling mask requirements “unconstitutional,” TheWashington Post reported

The demographics of sheriffs and the increasing evidence of their ties to patriot and militia movements should be cause for concern. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), militias are “paramilitary-style organizations” animated by “anti-government ideology and conspiracy theories that portray the federal government as a nefarious entity.” Militias are an armed subset of the antigovernment “patriot” movement, which comprises groups that “generally believe a secret cabal of global elites is plotting to ban guns, take away individual freedoms, and install a global, totalitarian regime known as the ‘New World Order,’’’ the SPLC reported.

“Nine out of 10 sheriffs are white men. You don’t stumble into numbers like that by accident,” Choresi Carter said. “You have to work hard to create that kind of demographic profile.”

A few facts about sheriffs

Last year The Appeal published a helpful explainer on sheriffs, the oldest institution of law enforcement in the United States. Of note: In the South, sheriffs historically played a crucial role serving as chief law enforcement officers. As America expanded westward, other states adopted the “Southern sheriff model” and included an elected sheriff position within their state constitutions, The Appeal reported.

Today the role of elected sheriffs varies depending on the state, but sheriffs nationwide share some common duties: overseeing local jails, transporting prisoners and pretrial detainees, and investigating crimes.

“In many places, sheriffs are the police where there is no municipal police force, but even when there is a municipal police force, sheriffs have tremendous power … when it comes to interacting with community members during very perilous times,” said Choresi Carter, noting that sheriffs oversee residential evictions, domestic violence calls, traffic stops, polling place monitoring, and criminal investigations. “From our perspective, when a group has tremendous discretion to act unilaterally, combined with apartheid-level demographics, that should be a huge red flag for everyone.”

The role of sheriff has incredible potential for abuse because sheriffs operate with very little oversight and restriction. There is also no real mechanism for holding sheriffs accountable, especially when they run for years unopposed. A shining example of this is Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson, one of North Carolina’s longest-serving sheriffs.  

In December 2012, the Department of Justice filed a civil rights suit against Johnson after a multi-year investigation into allegations of racial profiling and misconduct. Johnson’s office targeted Latinx residents in an effort to spur deportations, a process made seamless by the sheriff’s participation in the 287(g) program that deputizes local law enforcement to help carry out immigration enforcement for ICE. Prior to the lawsuit, federal officials stripped Johnson’s office of 287(g), which turned out to be of little consequence.

Johnson continues to maintain a special service agreement with ICE in which his jail temporarily detains immigrants on behalf of the agency. In effect, the Alamance jail has become “the ICE processing center of North Carolina.” Despite Johnson’s history of racism—he has called Mexican immigrants “taco eaters” and recently claimed “criminal immigrants” are “raping” citizens—last year Alamance County Commissioners unanimously approved a series of measures allowing Johnson to renew a multimillion dollar contract with ICE.

Like Johnson, sheriffs often run unopposed and can experience very long tenures. This is true even when the person elected has no law enforcement training. “Elected sheriffs may have backgrounds in business or real estate instead. Patronage can run strong in sheriffs’ departments, with some deputies hired as political favors,” The Appeal reported. Once in the role, sheriffs may enjoy financial perks. In one striking example outlined by The Appeal, Alabama sheriffs used state money to feed incarcerated people cheaply and then pocketed the remaining funds.

As Prism previously reported, the origin story of sheriffs is deeply racist and tied Reconstruction’s “slave patrols.” This history continues—and the overwhelming whiteness of sheriffs and dangerous lack of oversight enables sheriffs to “openly engage in vicious abuse with no repercussions and ample rewards,” according to the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Increasingly, white men in this role are openly flouting the federal government, partnering with hate groups, and aligning themselves with white nationalists.

Dangerous ties and racist rhetoric

A number of longtime sheriffs have recently made headlines for their dangerous ties and racist rhetoric.

Michigan’s Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf is being pressured to resign after he defended the militia group that plotted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Back in May during an anti-lockdown rally, Leaf shared a stage with one of the anti-government militia members who would later be charged with terrorism. In Wisconsin, after police killed 29-year-old Jacob Blake in front of his children, Kenosha Sheriff David Beth came under fire in August for his department’s “friendly rapport” with white nationalists. Members of his department were recorded “thanking armed, white vigilantes for their presence in the streets,” Rolling Stone reported. Beth, who was first elected in 2002 and is in his fifth term, was also recorded in a 2018 press conference calling a group of Black alleged shoplifters “garbage people” that needed to be “warehoused” in inhumane conditions, until “they’ve perished in these buildings.”

Leaf, Beth, and Johnson are all part of a wave of sheriffs who are helping to support and expand “systems of racialized social control and expulsion,” Political Research Associates’ Cloee Cooper wrote as part of a recent project that maps county sheriffs who align with far right and anti-immigrant movements. In practice, these sheriffs engage in openly racist policing and go to great lengths to help ICE expand its reach and funnel immigrants into deportation proceedings.

According to Cooper’s report, these efforts are largely led by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) and the organization Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), both of which encourage sheriffs to “leverage their local influence and become increasingly vocal supporters of right-wing policies.”

Within the last several years, sheriffs affiliated with CSPOA and the broader Patriot movement have embraced “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” creating jurisdictions that do not adhere to gun control policies. This June, the Kenosha County Legislative Committee voted to advance a resolution that would allow Kenosha County to operate as a Second Amendment Sanctuary. While the resolution did not pass, it would have allowed Beth to use his personal discretion in deciding which community members would be subject to firearms laws.

In 2019, Leaf was a speaker at CSPOA’s “Lawmen for Liberty” Conference where he discussed the opposition to their movement, framing Democrats, democratic socialists, and progressives as “just people who can’t spell Communism.” Leaf also cited a 1997 Supreme Court case that described sheriffs as “the sovereignty of the State [who] has no superiors in his county.”

Johnson also shares ties to FAIR, an anti-immigrant group that has been instrumental in urging local sheriffs to enter into 287(g) agreements with ICE and which has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. In 2015, Johnson was among a group of sheriffs that attended a “border tour” in Texas hosted by FAIR. The tour included courses on themes such as “recognizing the border crisis in your jurisdiction” and “drug wars and the recruitment of American teens by cartels.”

While alliances with explicitly far-right groups like FAIR and CSPOA are particularly troubling, membership in supposedly politically neutral groups such as the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) is also cause for alarm. The NSA boasts a membership of over 20,000 law enforcement officials and it is an increasingly right wing organization. According to a 2019 analysis by Political Research Associates, nearly a quarter of the leadership of the NSA have ties to CSPOA. Those alliances fly in the face of statements made by NSA leadership that seek to dismiss groups like CSPOA as “fringe.”

Further, a series of ongoing trainings about racism hosted by the NSA for law enforcement professionals provides a glimpse into how they approach race and concerns around bias and police violence.

Two NSA webinars held this summer and facilitated by Dr. Kimberly A. Miller sought to explain concepts such as privilege and systemic racism. During the hours-long conversations, Miller characterized the term “privilege” as a “weapon” that is currently being wielded to “attack white people.” It’s been used “as a weapon to say we are bad people because we walk in the world with privilege,” explained Miller, “you should not feel guilty about the privilege you have.”

Miller further told attendees that accusations of systemic racism have “been thrown at law enforcement agencies … very unfairly and I don’t think people who throw around this idea of systemic racism really even understand what it means.”

To help remedy that confusion, Miller described systemic racism as an issue that arises in only some law enforcement departments. The examples of systemic racism that she went on to outline—such as darker skinned people not being able to find flesh-toned bras, band-aids, and crayons—were almost entirely personal and anecdotal as opposed to examples that were illustrative of larger issues. Meanwhile, an historical overview of race relations in the country that spanned from slavery to redlining was outlined by Miller within a minute.

A webinar held later this year, also facilitated by Miller, focused on how to identify roadblocks and barriers that have been keeping law enforcement departments from moving “beyond racism.” Miller spent much of the presentation avoiding any explicit mentions of racial discrimination within the criminal legal system. She described problems around racial bias and police violence as a result of “poor hiring decisions” as opposed to a flawed system.

As part of a series of discussions designed to “enhance the profession and break down misperceptions about the justice system,” Miller’s misinformation and deflection of accountability for racial justice are not just troublesome but potentially dangerous considering the immense power wielded by the sheriffs within NSA’s membership.

A bigger question

While the nation’s attention continues to be captivated by the presidential election, there are more than 1,000 sheriffs races this year—and a number of the incumbents in these races are right wing sheriffs and sheriffs who work directly with ICE.

Among these incumbents are Eddy, New Mexico Sheriff Mark Cage who is featured on Political Research Associates’ map of sheriffs with far right and anti-immigrant ties. Cage participated in FAIR’s 2019 Immigration and Border Crisis Conference and will be facing Democratic challenger Donald Cantrell this November.

Douglas County, Oregon, Sheriff John Hanlin is a longtime member of CSPOA and vehemently opposed to gun control laws. In 2013, Hanlin and other Oregon sheriffs sent CSPOA-initiated letters to then-vice president Joe Biden, “saying they would not enforce new gun laws that were being discussed after the Sandy Hook school massacre,” the Rural Organizing Project reported. Afterward, Hanlin was one of hundreds of sheriffs cited by CSPOA as a law enforcement official who “vowed to uphold and defend the Constitution against Obama’s unconstitutional gun control measures,” Talking Points Memo reported. Hanlin is running unopposed in this November’s election.

As Prism previously reported, immigration is also essentially on the ballot in Arizona, Texas, Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Florida, all jurisdictions where sheriffs have a history of working closely with ICE.

As people nationwide grapple with the role they want law enforcement to play in their communities, there are roadmaps for different approaches jurisdictions can take.

“So far we’re seeing three main approaches: They replace existing sheriffs with more progressive ones; they try to reform the office in some way; [or they] abolish the department altogether,” Choresi said.

In 2000, Connecticut voters abolished the sheriff system. In 2016, the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission formed in an attempt to reform the deeply corrupt Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, which is the largest sheriff’s department in the world. In 2018, North Carolineans elected a wave of Black Democratic sheriffs who cut ties with ICE.

The director told Prism there is a bigger question that communities need to ask themselves.

“The big question is whether sheriffs are legitimate positions,” Choresi said. “Should they continue to exist?”

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.