Claremont Institute Sheriff Fellows
This year, the ring-wing and pro-insurrectionist Claremont Institute chose eight sheriff “fellows” to participate in a week-long training – whose curriculum seems highly suspect. (NB: I asked Claremont for more information on the proposed course of study and was denied. If it’s so “patriotic,” why not share it?) My personal theory? They are training an army for the next phase of right-wing violence, which has turned to focus on local governments, like school boards, health authorities, and sheriffs.
Riverside County, CA, Sheriff Chad Bianco
Bianco admitted to being a member of the Oath Keepers – a militia group whose members participated in January 6 -- when his name was leaked as a result of a large data hack. He has also promoted anti-vax ideology (by claiming he keeps from getting COVID with diet and exercise – yeah right) and been part of the anti-mask/ anti-health coalition of California sheriffs. Beyond that, he has failed to investigate jail deaths and other excessive force incidents under his watch. (Riverside Sheriff’s Office was already under a consent decree for jail conditions before Bianco came into office, so this is a historical problem that has gotten worse over time.) Plus he gave his brother a plum promotion and, shocker, appears to have used COVID relief money to redo his office – and still wants more money.
Mason County, MI, Sheriff Kim Cole
Cole was Michigan sheriff of the year, and his grand-pappy was a sheriff, too. He was one of the sheriffs who opposed Governor Whitmer’s mask and business closure mandates, and, on Fox News, specifically talked about “Virginia’s gun laws,” which I think is a big sign where this is going. He also refused to fund an abortion for someone in the custody of his jail, which became a pro-life propaganda story. My theory is that Michigan is a big hotbed for the “Stop the Steal” campaign waged by My Pillow Guy, and Cole is going to be an important part of that in the near future.
Tazewell County, VA, Sheriff Brian Hieatt
Virginia is a state the right really wants to reclaim, which explains why two VA sheriffs are on this list. The biggest thing to know about Hieatt is that he switched parties from Democrat to Republican. Why? The “far wing extremists,” gun laws, and “policing reforms.” Someone said “defund the police” and his feelings got hurt. Sounds like Claremont bait to me. He’s also crediting with amping up the “school officer” program and a large gun/ drug/ money seizure from, per the police, people who “decided to go big and made contact with a cartel.”
Culpepper County, VA, Sheriff Scott Jenkins
Jenkins first came to my attention via his association with a disreputable/ huckster anti-Muslim organization that purported to sell “anti-terrorism” training to local law enforcement. He has also been a vigorous proponent of removing gun restrictions and was at the Virginia gun rally in January 2020 (an incident largely seen now as a precursor to January 6) arguing he’d deputize his entire county to ensure gun possession without limits. He’s another sheriff who has been trying to edge his way into the media, both as a member of Protect America Now and as one of the sheriffs who wanted to be a frequent Trump guest. He’s also just bad: the local news has exposed him for being a bad boss, harassing employees, violating a defendant’s civil rights, and corruption. Here’s my gloss: Jenkins is a guy who has always wanted to feel important and now his far-right ideology has found people who appreciate it.
Pinal County, AZ, Sheriff Mark Lamb
I wrote a profile of Lamb, and since then, he’s only been rising in the right-wing universe. He most recently appeared at a Turning Point USA event alongside people like Kyle Rittenhouse and Michael Flynn, pushing everything from anti-immigrant rhetoric to opposition to police reform to stories about “election integrity” problems. A natural choice for Claremont, Lamb started a network “American Sheriff,” a group “Protect America Now” (no sheriff), wrote a book called “America Sheriff,” and calls himself “American Sheriff.”
Wicomico County, MD, Sheriff Michael Lewis
Lewis is a guy who has decided he wants to make politics his game, evidenced by his friendship with Lamb and membership in Protect America Now. He’s a Trump backer and his big claim to fame was insulting Black protestors (via Facebook) by telling them to “get off [their] butt and WORK for it.” When protests against police brutality happened in Baltimore in 2015, he sent a tank. (Some called it “overkill.” He was told to stand down which made him, he says, “sick.”) He, of course, said he won’t comply with the state gun control laws, and, in 2013, when Lewis led the Maryland Sheriffs Association, he testified against gun control. (Research note: How many of these sheriffs do what they claim? I would be curious. For example, the 2020 law Lewis opposed was background checks for gun purchases. Sheriffs are not involved in this process. But if it DID involve him he WOULD oppose? Whatever.)
Indian River County, FL, Sheriff Eric Flowers
Here’s the thing about Flowers – he was just sworn in in January of 2021. One of Flowers’s first acts was declaring Indian River County a “Second Amendment Gun Sanctuary” and signed a letter to Biden with some other Florida sheriffs complaining, without evidence, about immigration. <sigh> Flowers is also, weirdly, the Florida sheriff who started teaching his deputies jiu-jitsu. Flowers oversaw the first murder conviction for drug distribution in his corner of Florida, and he critiqued a decision where a man was acquitted for the murder of his girlfriend when sheriff deputies conducted a no-knock raid on his house and the cops began shooting. I’m wondering if there’s also a voting angle here because the county is very white and relatively wealthy with an increasing population – but it’s very Republican, so I am not sure what to think.
Tarrant County, TX, Sheriff Bill Waybourne
Waybourne narrowly won his most recent election, thanks to active work by grassroots organizations who have highlighted the county’s 287(g) program (and how pointless it is). His jail is still under fire for having a disproportionate number of deaths – including a baby who was born on the floor of a jail cell. He’s also a big gun guy, visited Trump a lot, and says racist stuff. (Also, very religious.)
I think there are a few identifiable trends above: fealty to Trump, love of guns, hatred of vaccines and public health enforcement, and bizarre outrage for any critiques of policing. I also think there’s a very broad general preference for very far-right sheriffs who are extremely outspoken in the face of Democratic or more moderate Republican leadership. I think these are all states Claremont and the Trump coalition intend to target for “election fraud.”
Dark Money Award: The National Sheriffs Association
The National Sheriffs’ Association – a dark-money organization with funding from Purdue Pharma and other pharmaceutical companies – nominally advocates for the office of sheriff nationwide. But, in addition to standing tall for police violence, the leaders of the NSA have failed to condemn white power/ anti-immigrant movements. Instead, an Oklahoma sheriff who was admittedly present at January 6 and supports “Stop the Steal” has been elected to the Executive Committee, and there are multiple members who identify as “constitutional sheriffs.” The NSA also single-handedly tanked federal police reform by being more retrograde than the police unions (!) and have targeted the NFL because… I guess they just want to be hated by everyone. They don’t get enough scrutiny but should. Just ask them about their sponsors.
Honorable Mention: Florida Sheriffs
(Because how can I pick just one.)
Florida sheriffs couldn’t get by without help, and they have a friend in Ron DeSantis. The thing about the Florida sheriffs is that they make fewer headlines as individuals, but present a formidably corrupt force together, working with DeSantis and his cronies to establish an anti-state. Let’s just look at a few examples:
Anti-riot legislation: DeSantis signed this abominable bill flanked by Florida sheriffs. Remember Sheriff Grady Judd who held up the “visual aid” when DeSantis signed “anti-riot” legislation and said don’t “vote the stupid way you did up North?”
Immigration: The Supreme Court of the United States held almost two centuries ago that states cannot make their own immigration law. That doesn’t deter Florida, whose governor has told the federal government it can’t resettle immigrants there. After spreading a rumor about “night planes” transporting immigrants from Texas to Florida for services, sheriffs like Wayne Ivey argued that there was a plot being perpetrated. Florida sheriffs even, oddly, wrote a report about Texas immigration (and DeSantis sent law enforcement to Texas). There is also no question that Florida sheriffs were top recruits for ICE under Trump.
There are a lot of other sheriffs who deserve to be on this list, which is by no means complete. My choices here reflect both current activities and their potential for future harm in the next year. With respect to all of these sheriffs and their organizations, I think we will see increased pressure to block all law enforcement reform and support far-right policies in the march to midterms. More troubling, these are all sheriffs with ideologies that appear, in my view, to be willing participants in a Republican project to subvert democracy both by suppressing voting rights and by planning for a potentially violent takeover in the image of January 6.