Sheriffs In Texas, Elsewhere Seek Validation as New Election Police
Wednesday, April 5, 2023
By Jessica Pishko for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
Broadcast version by Roz Brown for Texas News Service reporting for the Pulitzer Center-Public News Service Collaboration.
Last summer, the sheriff of Coryell County in Central Texas took to an elevated platform in a small Las Vegas ballroom and made an unusual announcement: He was a “born-again sheriff,” he said, having “realized that I wasn’t doing my job 100%.”
Sheriff Scott Williams runs a 92-bed jail and provides security for the courthouse in Gatesville. He oversees around two dozen employees. The county is known for its six state prison facilities, and Williams has struggled to keep his overcrowded jail in compliance with state standards. He cannot keep his department adequately staffed because his deputies are “tired of working like Hebrew slaves for very little money,” Williams told a local news source.
In Vegas, he told the audience that he wanted to protect America from “globalists that are coming to destroy our nation,” saying “the moment we start acting like we are Americans, we are going to take our country back.”
First elected in 2016, Williams is part of the growing “constitutional sheriff” movement, which claims that sheriffs have the power to override federal and state authority on matters from border enforcement to gun control to election security.
Legal scholars say the movement has no grounding in law, yet it is gaining steam: A study last year by scholars at Texas Christian University and Tulane University on behalf of The Marshall Project found that as many as 1 in 10 of America’s 3,000-plus sheriffs believe they have the authority to stand between their constituents and higher government entities, a tactic they call “interposition.”
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, the key organization fueling the movement, led around a dozen training sessions in Texas in 2020 and 2021. A February 2021 session in The Woodlands drew at least 27 sheriffs or deputies. At an October 2021 session in Mesquite, the keynote speaker was Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and attendees included state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and former state Sen. Don Huffines, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Greg Abbott in the Republican primary for governor. Other attendees have included justices of the peace, police captains and members of the Texas Farm Bureau.
The seminars count for six to eight hours of continuing training credit required by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, which certifies peace officers. Last summer, the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group that tracks far-right organizations, raised concerns that the agency was effectively blessing the training.
In response to that complaint plus an email from the Anti-Defamation League, TCOLE sent a field agent to attend a July 2021 training session in Houston County, which he recorded. In a one-paragraph report, the agent wrote that “the class was a study of the law and making sure law enforcement, particularly Sheriffs, were following their oath, standing up for, and protecting the individual rights of every citizen they swore to protect […] some officers [said] that they had not covered this material as in depth before and thought it was a good class.”
Another agent attended a session in Burnet County in July 2021 and noted, “I heard no negative or derogatory comment made, or provided, about any segment of society.”
TCOLE’s director of government relations, Gretchen Grigsby, said in a phone interview for this story that the trainings remain under investigation by her department.
Richard Mack, a former sheriff in southeastern Arizona, founded the CSPOA and has become well known for opposing COVID-related business closures and health measures, holding absolutist views on the Second Amendment and arguing that the federal government is an unwanted intrusion into people’s lives. Most recently, the association and Mack have taken to fueling rumors about widespread voter fraud and encouraging sheriffs, in particular, to investigate complaints of voter fraud, which scholars say falls outside their authority.
Mack is a former board member of the Oath Keepers, two of whose leaders were recently convicted of seditious conspiracy for their involvement in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
At the event in Las Vegas, Williams acknowledged the controversies around Mack. He explained that he was initially reluctant to attend a training session sponsored by the CSPOA, then looked up Mack on the internet at the suggestion of a community member.
“According to the internet, Sheriff Mack is the antichrist, so don’t believe none of that crap,” he said with a chuckle, adding that Mack had converted him to the movement. Mack explained the conversion was “not to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but to the Constitution. Some people think they are one and the same, and I’m one of them."
The constitutional sheriff movement has its roots in the Posse Comitatus (“power of the county”) movement of the 1970s and ’80s.
Posse Comitatus founder William Potter Gale was a self-ordained minister who called on sheriffs to supersede federal agencies and serve as quasi-vigilantes, primarily to resist school desegregation.
His ideas went on to influence sovereign citizens and militia movements. Many Posse Comitatus adherents were violent; in one incident, an acolyte of Gale’s instigated a shootout that left two U.S. Marshals dead. Later, the same man was killed in another shootout, in addition to a local sheriff. Gale himself was convicted of mailing death threats to a judge and IRS agents.
Mack, who leads the modern-day sheriffs’ movement, counts as an inspiration W. Cleon Skousen, a member of the John Birch Society who proposed that the Constitution was divinely inspired and under attack from communists and liberals.
After attending a seminar by Skousen, Mack has said in various speeches and books, he was inspired to run for sheriff in his home county of Graham County, Arizona. He won in 1988 and was reelected in 1992. During his second term, Mack was one of a handful of sheriffs recruited by the National Rifle Association to challenge the gun-sale restrictions of the Brady Bill in court. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that the federal government could not require state and local governments to conduct background checks, he became a far-right hero.
After losing his bid for a third term, Mack began going around the country talking to far-right groups and moved to Fredericksburg, Texas, around 2011 to start the CSPOA. He described a far-right group geared toward recruiting law enforcement officers, although anyone is allowed to join.
A group called the Patriots of Gillespie County was instrumental in persuading Mack to move, advertising on its website that he would “bring government back to its proper role in these United States.” (In an email, Mack said he lived in Texas for 20 months “under contract” with the group. He did not agree to a phone interview.)
In 2012, he ran as an far-right, libertarian Republican primary candidate for Congress from Texas’ 21st Congressional District, which includes parts of Travis and Bexar counties. (He lost, receiving only 15% of the vote.)
Mack stepped down as the formal head of the CSPOA in November, but a CSPOA announcement in November 2022 has said he will retain a leadership role.
Mack asserts that elected sheriffs are accountable only to their voters, not judges or legislators, even when other branches of government make or interpret the law. In effect, sheriffs can nullify a law by refusing to enforce it. “The federal government, the White House, or Congress do not hire us, they cannot fire us, and they cannot tell us what to do,” he wrote in his 2009 book “The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope.”
Mainstream legal scholars say the theory is quackery. “Mack has history wrong, and dangerously so,” says Robert Tsai, a Boston University law professor. James Madison explicitly repudiated nullification as a doctrine, Tsai said, noting that politicians used the theory to justify the expansion of slavery in the 1850s and to resist desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s.
The COVID-19 pandemic gave Mack and his movement a burst of new attention, as did the unrest in 2020 that followed the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black civilian, by a Minneapolis police officer. He argued in August 2020 that sheriffs could call upon posses to deal with protesters.
According to Mack, 27 Texas sheriffs or deputies attended a CSPOA event in February 2021 in The Woodlands. The speakers included:
- Rev. Mark Collins, a former pastor in Sutherland Springs, where a gunman killed 26 churchgoers in 2017. Collins dressed as George Washington for the training.
- KrisAnne Hall, an ex-prosecutor who describes herself as a constitutional lawyer and who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “travels the country preaching that U.S. citizens do not need to comply with the government.”
- Michael Peroutka, previously the Maryland leader for the League of the South, which the Southern Poverty Law Center designated as a white supremacist organization. Its new project is the Institute of the Constitution, which promotes a form of Christian nationalism.
- Gary Heavin, a former women’s fitness entrepreneur from Waco who has donated to the Oath Keepers.
- Pamela Elliott, a controversial former Texas sheriff who is featured on the cover of Mack’s book “Are You a David?”
Speaking early in the conference, Sheriff Randy Hargrove of Houston County, in East Texas, said that Mack had endorsed both his runs for sheriff and spoke about his struggles enforcing pandemic-related business closures and mask mandates. “I took a step back and went back to what I had been taught by Sheriff Mack […] look to the Constitution first,” he said. He explained it was a learning process for him: “Thank God that we got someone like Sheriff Mack who is out there helping us with that.”
Then Mack took to the stage. “We have never and we will never advocate violence of any kind,” he said, mentioning Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. “The backdrop of this entire conference is, what is government’s role?”
“We have sheriffs who will interpose. Stand in the way. And make sure we are not victimizing our citizens all in the name of ‘it’s for your own good,’” he said.
Later, Hargrove wrote, “What this CSPOA training is, in reality, is a good old-fashioned Constitutional Revival!”
According to documents obtained through public records requests from Williams’ office, the CSPOA had a list of 50 Texas sheriffs who attended its trainings and at least 50 more it sought to recruit. Some sheriffs sent multiple employees. Williams went to one training with 12 other sworn officers from his office, which cost the office and taxpayers just under $700.
Along with sheriffs, several elected officials and county judges have attended, according to a CSPOA 2021 year-end report.
A bare-bones syllabus appears to be the only documentation submitted to TCOLE to qualify the CSPOA conferences as training, alongside a letter in which Mack claimed that the syllabus and all his information was proprietary. There are no assessments or other tests at the end of the training sessions, nor is there a textbook or manual.
After each event, sheriffs were given a “Statement of Constitutional Sheriff” to “use as a guide in all law enforcement endeavors.”
In July 2021, as part of the so-called “Texas Tour,” Mack held a training session in Burnet County, in the Hill Country, that offered six hours of TCOLE continuing education credit. Burnet County Sheriff Calvin Boyd provided an introduction, explaining that what people want from a “constitutional sheriff” is someone who “will protect you from a government that attempts to overreach.”
“And this thing’s grown,” he continued. “One of the things we need to change is that this is not radical. It’s not radical to follow the rules. It’s not radical to follow the Constitution. The other side is pretty good at turning that around.”
According to a recording provided by TCOLE, the law-enforcement-only portion of the training that counts as continuing education credit does not include legal analysis or legislative history. Mack says nullification doctrine “has nothing to do with racism,” and merely leaves it to states “to judge the constitutionality of laws and decrees.”
Interposition, he has told attendees, is like playing defense in basketball. “The bureaucrat is here trying to get to the innocent citizens and your job is to stay in the way. You make it messy for them. You make it difficult for them.”
Other sections of Mack’s training are plainly in opposition to the federal government. He told sheriffs and deputies that the IRS “is violating the constitution” when it conducts audits. “If your legislature can legislate anything in your life, they own you,” he said, saying the government makes people “slaves” through laws and excessive government spending.
Not all sheriffs who attend CSPOA training fully buy into the dogma. Sheriff Brad Norman of Ellis County, south of Dallas, said he attended a training but did not remember very much about it. He said he identifies as a “constitutional sheriff” but isn’t “part of any card-carrying organization or anything like that.”
Sheriff Trace Hendricks of Bosque County, in Central Texas, said he’s gone to three CSPOA trainings over the past two years. He was reluctant to speak about them, he said, because the media was “trying to make sheriffs look like fools.”
Hendricks said he didn’t “understand the hype” and certainly doesn’t think a sheriff can overrule federal law enforcement. While Hendricks said he identified as a “constitutional sheriff,” he added that Mack has “a couple of points that I disagree with. I didn’t go and join any cult.”
Sheriffs on the border
Experts in extremism argue that the CSPOA training events introduce fringe ideas into political discourse that gradually push the Republican Party further to the right.
“Law enforcement officers and other attendees who took part in trainings or events hosted by constitutional sheriffs have used what they see as their newfound knowledge to speak out or lobby for new policies that are often aligned with a far-right agenda, one that has been developed and promoted by constitutional sheriff’s organizations, conspiracy theorists and an anti-immigrant hate group,” said Rachel Goldwasser of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where Abbott has poured around $2 billion into Operation Lone Star, benefiting sheriffs who can militarize their departments in the name of “border security.” (Mack said in an email that the “disaster at the border” was a reason Texas sheriffs were interested in his trainings.)
Some far-right sheriffs willingly partnered — informally at least — with border militias. In Kinney County, for example, the sheriff — who is on a CSPOA member list — and the county attorney wanted to use state funding to hire private citizens, many of whom were members of a local militia called Patriots for America, to conduct patrols of the border: an official posse. Community members and civil rights groups like the ACLU objected, so the plans were dropped. But the sheriff continued to communicate with these militia groups.
The Operation Lone Star task force is also primarily composed of sheriffs who have attended at least one of Mack’s trainings. Sheriff Raymundo Del Bosque of Zapata County has repeatedly praised Operation Lone Star, and his county has received substantial funding from the state.
“Good always prevails against evil,” he said at the July 2022 Las Vegas conference. He claimed Operation Lone Star was curbing “Biden’s open-border policies.”
“We are holding the front line together,” he said. “We need to join the fight and protect the front line.”
Four Texas sheriffs in leadership positions with the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, which represents sheriffs all over the state, are listed as having attended at least one CSPOA training: Greg Capers of San Jacinto County, Del Bosque of Zapata County, Rand Henderson of Montgomery County and Mark Reynolds of Comal County, according to a list from the CSPOA. None returned calls for comment.
Part of the reason CSPOA trainings are popular in rural Texas might be linked to the role of the sheriff in Texas life. Texas has 254 counties, and many are lightly populated. Most of the sheriffs who participated in CSPOA trainings run departments with fewer than 50 employees. The Deason Center report on rural Texas sheriffs, the result of a focus group conducted by the Deason Criminal Justice Reform Center at SMU's Dedman School of Law, points out that sheriffs, unlike other law enforcement offices, are elected and maintain connections with their voters in a hands-on, personal way.
Many sheriffs cited community as a reason for joining the CSPOA. Sheriff Cutter Clinton — who joined the CSPOA before he became sheriff of Panola County — shared his experience after Mack at one Texas conference. “We’re blessed that we haven’t been troubled with a lot of the troubles that have plagued the country. […] The year 2020, though, we saw things like that. Things we haven’t seen […] the different executive orders, the mandates. I began to question a lot of things I believed in for a long time.” He said a friend referred him to the CSPOA.
“You got a lot of reading material,” he said, explaining that such reading helped him make sense of the role of sheriff. He praised the trainings as a chance to be “among my people.”
Williams, the sheriff of Coryell County, has said that after the CSPOA training his “relationship with the community blossomed.” All of his deputies, he says, now carry one of Skousen’s pocket constitutions.
Chasing voting fraud
In recent months, CSPOA-affiliated sheriffs have aligned with election-denier groups to form coalitions that appear ready to promote “the big lie” and pounce on any chance to highlight potential fraud in their communities. At a July event in Las Vegas, at least three Texas sheriffs appeared onstage with Mack to promote a new partnership with True the Vote, a Houston-based organization that peddles election conspiracies. (Mack claimed more Texas sheriffs were in attendance, but that could not be confirmed.)
These sheriffs have also been influential in the far-right push for more election policing, including concerns that people are voting illegally, worries about the accuracy of voting machines and the desire to appear willing and ready to investigate and arrest individuals, even members of their own county government. In rural Michigan, for example, Sheriff Dar Leaf, who works closely with Mack to steer CSPOA policies, has spent nearly two years investigating what he alleges are local election fraud claims. Despite limited resources, he has a full-time detective focused only on election investigations and has targeted local election officials, making them the target of threats of violence from radicalized community members.
While it’s not clear that all of the Texas sheriffs who attended CSPOA trainings are election-deniers, some expressed those views in interviews. Hendricks, the Bosque County sheriff who did not agree with Mack entirely, said he believes there was election fraud: “I don’t have evidence one way or the other. I follow the news pretty closely, and I’m not comfortable with the way the outcome was.” In an interview after the press conference in Las Vegas, Williams confirmed: “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” when asked about election fraud.
In November of last year, Mack announced that he would be stepping back from the day-to-day operations of the CSPOA. He said he plans to remain active but has taken a formal position with America’s Frontline Doctors, an anti-vaccination group whose founder, Simone Gold, was sentenced to 60 days of incarceration for her role in the Capitol attack on Jan. 6. Sam Bushman, a long-time collaborator with Mack, is now the CEO of CSPOA. Bushman is best known for his daily far-right podcast “Liberty Roundtable,” which has hosted guests like Eric Trump, son of the former president; he said in November 2022, “I don’t believe that (convicted Oath Keepers founder) Stewart Rhodes was guilty.”
Shortly after Mack’s announcement, Williams appeared as a guest on “Liberty Roundtable” with Mack, who discussed the change in command at the CSPOA. Mack said that he hopes other sheriffs will get more involved with CSPOA events and trainings.
“We are just growing so quickly, and we need sitting sheriffs like Sheriff Williams to help shoulder that load,” Mack said. Williams is a member of the new CSPOA Advisory Board, alongside Leaf and other well-known far-right sheriffs.
Kirk Launius, a one-time candidate for Dallas County sheriff, is the Texas State Director for the CSPOA. He recently said that the CSPOA plans to expand its presence in Texas, using local connections and county groups like the True Texas Project as “leverage” and a way to “grease the skids.” In another recent podcast, Bushman cited the success of TCOLE certification in Texas as inspiration to expand to other states like Nevada and Utah.
Williams agreed and added, “What the CSPOA has done is taken like-minded, liberty-, God-loving sheriffs and brought us together.”
Jessica Pishko wrote this article for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
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