Sheriffs and the Bipartisan Reform Left-Right Shuffle
Last week, the Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officer Association (CSPOA) held a conference in Houston, Texas. The main gist of the event was largely to rail against the Biden administration and drum up support for sheriffs. One of my favorite moments was a sheriff saying that, when he complained to Donald Trump about a certain state senator, Trump said he would “take care of the guy.” It was spoken with admiration.
A more surprising element was a talk by CSPOA legislative liaison Rick Dalton, who gave an entire presentation against civil asset forfeiture. (It looks like the CSPOA has opposed civil asset forfeiture without a conviction for a few years.) Civil asset forfeiture reform has been supported by both progressive and conservative groups. (Sarah Stillman wrote an excellent article on the practice for those less familiar.) For groups like the ACLU, asset forfeiture illegally takes property without requiring a conviction, which makes it part of the overall PIC where law enforcement – especially local sheriffs – are able to profit without doing a whole lot of work to prove a crime actually took place. Conservatives have also taken up the issue, with stalwart right-leaning groups like the Koch Foundation, Right on Crime, and ALEC supporting civil asset forfeiture reform as part of reducing the impact of the government on individual liberty and encouraging free market activity.
For these reasons, civil asset forfeiture was on its way out, I would argue, until Jeff Sessions brought back the practice. Many states already have limits or are considering limits on the practice. The federal government under Barack Obama had limited the scope of civil asset forfeiture. There have been several notorious abuses of the practice, including, my favorite, ex-Sheriff Butch Conway’s muscle car, purchased with $70K of forfeited funds. (A DOJ investigation determined that he had to give the money back.)
It was interesting to see CSPOA members arguing that sheriffs should stop seizing funds. I should add that another sheriff speaker argued asset forfeiture was an important tool for restraining “drug cartels,” pointing out that the practice was not used against “ordinary people.”
I am extremely critical and skeptical of bipartisan criminal system reform. What I have seen is a gradual acceptance by even the most right-wing sheriffs of certain reform moves. Most of these, I would argue, are motivated by these sheriffs’ two concerns in life: getting elected and opposing federal government intervention.
For example, right-wing sheriffs like Sheriff Mark Lamb in Pinal County have embraced health-oriented treatments for the overdose crisis, usually with the goal of separating the “good kids gone bad” from the “evil cartel members.” This move, I think, clearly speaks to the white, rural, conservative voter’s concern about the overdose crisis, which has impacted white people to a noticeable degree. I don't think this move is some sort of embrace of reform. Instead, it’s being used to generate the same good guy/ bad guy narrative sheriffs have always relied on to get elected. I also think that their embrace of health-oriented treatments is another way to retain power and get money, as I argue in this piece for The Atlantic. (There’s an excellent article by Taleed El-Sabawi that examines the narratives from law enforcement with respect to their involvement in health policies and places them on a spectrum.)
Sheriff opposition to civil asset forfeiture is much the same thing. Right-leaning sheriffs across the country have always opposed government intervention, which is a weird thing for government entities like law enforcement to believe, granted. The ethos of the sheriff is both pro-law enforcement and, oddly, anti-government. This, I think, comes from the long history of sheriffs positioning themselves in opposition to technocratic policing and government (e.g. medical science) and in support of “popular will.”
But the shuffle goes both ways. The Washington State Supreme Court last week held that laws criminalizing drug possession were unconstitutional (under the state constitution). Snohomish County, Washington, Sheriff Adam Fortney (facing recall, as you may remember) was spitting mad on Facebook. His arguments weren’t legal, of course, but largely framed as part of the culture war – the terrible technocratic urban elites who just don’t get it. His deputies, he declared, would continue to work “in the face of adversity.”
Similarly, a handful of pro-Trump sheriffs formed a new group called Protect America Now USA (important to say both “America” and “USA” to ensure full patriotism). A full discussion of my views on this group will be another newsletter, but suffice to say that the leadership of Sheriff Mark Lamb implies to me that it’s a fundraising entity whose primary purpose will be to allow Sheriff Lamb to show his mug on Newsmax and Fox News (which he’s already done) to generate fear-mongering and set himself up for higher office.
In any event, thus far, the primary position of the group appears to be a cheerleader for the far-right culture war. First, note the use of the word “patriot,” which is a dog whistle for “more right-wing than Republican” and recalls the January 6 insurrection (which Sheriff Lamb supported). Second, their first real action was Sheriff Wayne Ivey’s five-minute-long video in which he complains about the decision by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to not play the national anthem before games. Is the national anthem a law enforcement issue? You bet your sweet arse. Sheriffs may oppose federal intervention in their affairs, but they will be damned if they don’t sing the anthem every chance they get. Protect America Now is setting itself up as culture war warriors with a badge.
My final thought is this: upon listening to CSPOA members speak at the conference, it occurred to me that Sheriff Richard Mack is getting…old. He is still giving the same message, focused on vague and rambling interpretations of the constitution and Magna Carta. He’s stuck in his glory days of U.S. v. Printz. He’s also been very vehement that he does not condone violence. (He even emailed me to say so.)
I started to wonder if this talk is no longer provocative for the Trump/ patriot/ insurrectionist crowd. Sheriff Lamb, he’s much more flashy. He’s blowing up trucks in the desert. He sells his face on t-shirts while Mack is selling herbal cures for constipation. I keep thinking of the populist gun movement, which has largely shifted away from the NRA (too staid, too many suits) and moved towards populist, grassroots groups whose leaders yell a lot on Facebook Live. Is Lamb’s group the new “no compromise” for sheriffs?
I think yes, which means that the CSPOA is now…too mainstream?
Deputies, Violence, and Dogs
In Collier County, Florida, a woman called 911 to report a man in her neighborhood trying to break into houses (it seems as though he was mostly knocking on doors and rattling doorknobs). Collier County sheriff deputies who responded to the call say that they saw Nicholas Morales, (a local farmworker and single father from Immokalee) holding the perennial “shiny objects,” which in this case were pruning shears and a shovel. It’s pretty clear from the video that he was having a mental health crisis. (Mr. Morales’s son also testified that his father had left the house late that evening saying he heard voices.) The deputies shot him. In the video, you can see that after the deputies shot Mr. Morales multiple times, he is already on the ground when the deputies release their dog. Last week, the State’s Attorney released a report saying that the shooting was justified. The local NAACP chapter and farmworker community are demanding more answers. [Warning: the video is very graphic and disturbing.]
Many sheriffs use their K9 units largely as copaganda for their social media accounts. But, as The Marshall Project reported over the course of several in-depth articles, law enforcement dogs cause a lot of injuries. There are terrible videos of Sheriff Louis Ackal allowing deputies inside his jail to maul people. As a dog person with a Rottweiler, I assume that this is the fault of the handlers, who aren’t properly trained, which is what always happens when you let law enforcement ran rampant without oversight. (Protection dogs are supposed to be trained to incapacitate people usually by grabbing their upper arm. They are not supposed to tear at flesh indiscriminately.) Beyond that, there are huge geographic disparities in the use of dogs and no requirements or legislation. My opinion? They shouldn’t be used, especially to maul people, especially considering the history of dogs as intimidation tactics.
Other Reading and Listening
In Tulare County, California, local advocates for the unhoused community have been clashing with the local sheriff, who has threatened to destroy an encampment.
Luke Mogelson has done excellent reporting on the militia movement and protests. His interview with Terry Gross is well worth listening to. The new takeaway for me? That many of the January 6 insurrectionists carried walking sticks and flag poles made of solid wood (in at least one case, a baseball bat) intentionally as weapons because Washington, D.C. does not allow open or concealed carry of firearms.
I highly recommend Connie Walker’s interview with the Longform podcast. Connie is one of those reporters whose work I admire greatly AND who is even kinder, humbler, and more thoughtful in person that I expected.
CBS This Morning did a segment on LASD deputy gangs, which is well worth a watch.
Good article that highlights some good and not so good work of some sheriff's. https://www.dailynews.com/2020/08/05/gangs-of-sheriffs-deputies-cost-la-county-55-million/