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“Constitutional” Sheriff Backed Malheur Occupation

People at a Black Lives Matter gathering in Josephine County on Aug. 9 were met with a counter-protest by members of the Oath Keepers. (Rural Organizing Project)
People at a Black Lives Matter gathering in Josephine County on Aug. 9 were met with a counter-protest by members of the Oath Keepers. (Rural Organizing Project)
August 24, 2016

JOHN DAY, Ore. - The small-town sheriff who made front-page headlines in Oregon this week also tops an investigative report by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group says Grant County Sheriff Glenn Palmer is part of a growing movement of law-enforcement officers who swear to uphold the Constitution - but only as they interpret it.

Mark Potock, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the movement is anti-gun-control and recognizes the county as the highest legitimate form of government, and the sheriff as the ultimate authority within the county.

"If you believe the federal government has a secret plot to seize all Americans' weapons and that kind of thing," Potock said, "our view is that this can only lead to very serious conflicts within the law-enforcement community, and to making all the rest of us less safe."

At least a dozen Oregon counties have sheriffs with similar views, according to the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. That group describes sheriffs as "the first line of defense in preserving the Constitutional rights of a citizen."

Palmer gained prominence in the movement for backing the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Across the West, the Southern Poverty Law Center report said, these tensions have led to more conflicts between local law enforcement and federal agencies, such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, and to sheriffs deputizing people even with no law-enforcement training.

When a sheriff decides to adopt a far-right stance, Potock said, the most effective counter may be public input.

"I think the most important thing we all can do is expose the beliefs of some of these radicalized sheriffs and hold them up to the light of public examination," he said. "Ultimately, the voters in each county can decide whether these people should continue to represent them."

All sides in the debate over sheriffs' roles agree that law enforcement has gotten tougher and more dangerous. However, Potock said it isn't helpful that rural officers are being "bombarded with propaganda from groups like the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs," trying to get them to sign up.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR