He had a bad day
How sheriffs perpetuate the story of the good kid having a rough time
Apology letter from Cherokee County Sheriff saying he “regret[s] any heartache Captain Baker’s words may have caused.”
After the Atlanta police and the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department arrested the 21-year-old man who allegedly killed 8 people (7 women; 6 Asians) last week, the Cherokee Sheriff’s Office’s spokesman Captain Jay Baker gave a short statement about the suspect, ending with “yesterday was a really bad day for him, and this is what he did.”
Certainly, this sounded like (and was) a callous statement made by a man who was quicker to empathize with the white, male suspect than the 8 dead victims and their families. Some people on Twitter made much of the fact that Baker was supposedly just repeating what the suspect may have said during interrogation (or that a Washington Post reporter took the comment out of context, which I don’t think is true), but this argument feels specious and aside from the point. The point is that the hypocrisy of empathizing with a “lone wolf,” “bad day,” “troubled,” white, male suspect in a mass shooting lays bare the insincerity of law enforcement’s claims to be “for the victims.” There are plenty of press conferences involving suspects of color where they are described as monsters without a conscience, deviants, and sub-humans. Yet, when it’s someone that the sheriff sees as unthreatening (e.g. white, male), they are more willing to justify to minimize their actions, such as when Sheriff Dar Leaf argued that Michigan militia members had a right to stalk and plan to kidnap the state’s governor.
While I am in favor of seeing all people in their complexity, “a bad day” feels reductive. It was sadly no surprise when news broke that Baker also had a side gig selling racist coronavirus t-shirts. (Baker has since been removed from this investigation.) In a political and cultural environment where the previous leader of this country routinely referred to coronavirus with racist names and there have been marked instances of people targeting Asian-Americans for harassment and violence, you’d think people would get that Asian-Americans are feeling a bit raw. Plus there’s the not-incidental fact that law enforcement initially arrested the spouse of one of the victims and hed him for hours.
It’s hardly shocking to see a sheriff’s office being insensitive. While all institutions write themselves into existence with rhetoric, sheriffs’ offices have constructed a story where masculine forces prevail and there’s a clear distinction between the “good kid gone wrong” and the “invader.”
Some of this is basic threat construction. In recent months, I have heard several sheriffs talk about “busloads of protestors” coming into their county. They are generally referring to Black Lives Matter activists (or sometimes “antifa” with no clear distinction) who have become their nemesis along with the idea that such discontents come from the outside. Remember how, in the wake of January 6, conservative social media spread a rumor that “antifa” actually planned the violence in order to make patriots look bad? It’s the same concept. The people in the county are good people (white, of course, in that general color-blind way of far-right thought) and people from the outside are a threat to this order.
But I do think there is something specific about sheriffs’ offices in maintaining this order. As Toby Moore wrote in “Race and the County Sheriff in the American South:”
Because of their wide powers and multiple roles, sheriffs played a particularly notable role in the region's racial history. Nearly always white and male, and overwhelmingly Democrat, southern sheriffs were linchpins in the maintenance of white supremacy and its class-based and race-based privileges. Exercising broad discretionary powers in the enforcement of the law, county sheriffs helped reproduce the complex set of social taboos and practices that made up Jim Crow society.
Back in the ye old days of America, most policing was of the informal variety, meaning that the power of peer pressure and armed vigilantes were more likely to persuade someone to turn themselves in than a massive manhunt using facial recognition technology. Sheriffs were masters of this. If an important man’s son got drunk on moonshine, the sheriff could just ignore it. During prohibition, sheriffs often turned the other cheek to gambling, drinking, and “vice” so long as it didn’t get in the way of business. A study by Zoe Nemerever showed that counties with “constitutional sheriffs” have more political violence directed toward the Bureau of Land Management. And this year, we saw a version of the same rhetoric where sheriffs across the country refused to arrest “good citizens and business owners” for violating coronavirus-related health restrictions.
One sheriff manual specifically cites the fact that sheriffs know when someone is a “good kid who made a mistake” as a form of community policing, presented in contrast to federal marshalls who just, you know, arrest everybody.
My contribution to this clear line of sheriffs aligning with populist culture is small, but, I hope, imparts a warning to people in media. The process of creating a political identity, like that of the “toughest sheriff” is iterative and can only be done in conjunction with local media, which replicates and echoes ideas and themes that continue to emphasize the primacy of sheriffs and their populist ideologies. In a sense, the “sheriff” becomes defined not as a person existing in the world, but rather as a simulacrum of itself, a myth without real-world meaning. This is, of course, largely factual (and possibly not relevant in the particular case of the Cherokee County Sheriff and his spokesperson). But it runs the risk of impeding counter-narratives and stifling resistance to those sheriffs.
1) The New York Times profiled Wyoming’s first Black sheriff. A lot of the article takes pains to point out how white Wyoming is — no mention of Native Americans, oddly, or Latinx people, which are the two largest non-white populations in the state. Notably, even the NYT can’t help but romanticize the role of sheriffs. Take this quote, when discussing the new sheriff’s less aggressive/ more accepting of criminal reforms approach.
Sheriff Appelhans’s approach is a stark departure for a Wyoming sheriff, a storied, sometimes archaic institution central to the lore of a disappearing American West.
It’s good to see some focus on non-urban America and the role of the sheriff, but the piece feels lacking in…meat? I would like to see more critical approaches as to what sorts of changes these sheriffs will bring and what sort of push-back they will encounter from other sheriffs, who are more interested in protecting their turf.
2) My friend Guy Hamilton-Smith posted on his substack the other day about the intense sheriff opposition to an Illinois bill that is intended to alleviate the housing restrictions currently in place for those on sex offender registries. Overall, the evidence is clear that SO restrictions on housing are counter-productive and do not prevent crime or recidivism. (In fact, there’s no evidence to show that registries have any public safety benefit.) The sheriff’s comments are so fact-free as to be almost amusing, except that people still listen to them.
Note: This was written before the horrible mass shooting in Boulder. I wanted to express my sorrow for victims and families in Georgia, Boulder, and everywhere where people are suffering and sad.