On Jan. 6, Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb made a promise. Delivering a speech in Phoenix during the ongoing mob attack on the nation’s Capitol, Lamb accused former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton of unnamed crimes and repeated President Donald Trump’s false claims about election fraud. “Now I’m limited to what I can do as the sheriff, but if you live in Pinal County, I assure you I can fight for your freedom,” he said before exhorting his followers to “be vigilant” and to “fight for the Constitution, freedom, and the American way of life.” (The video has since been deleted from social media.)
In the past week, it’s become clear that many members of law enforcement from across the country participated in the siege on the Capitol. That includes former and current sheriffs and their deputies. Ex–Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway was at the Trump rally but says he didn’t march to the Capitol. He described the crowd as “a cross between tailgating at a football game and a NASCAR race—families, dogs, children. Everyone being nice. I mean, it was like a family reunion without some of the hatefulness you can find at family reunions. It was a very good crowd.”
At least one current sheriff admits he was at the riot: Sheriff Chris West of Canadian County, Oklahoma, says he marched toward the Capitol building but did not enter. But long before Jan. 6, sheriffs have been helping to lay the groundwork for violence by the far-right movement. As political leaders in their communities, they have been sowing dissent at home, encouraging their own armed militias to prepare themselves to take back the government just as Lamb suggested.
Ninety percent of American sheriffs are white men, and in recent years they’ve become strongly affiliated with white supremacist groups. Across the country, sheriffs have declared that they will not enforce laws they deem “unconstitutional,” like COVID-19 public health orders or gun laws limiting weapons possession and permits. Their influence has only grown since the pandemic began, as mask wearing became affiliated with progressive liberals and a bare face was a sign of Trump support. Trump has always had an affinity with sheriffs. He met with more sheriffs at the White House than any other president and pardoned ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of contempt of court for failing to abide by a nondiscrimination order, calling him an “American patriot.”
Sheriffs have also played a key role in nurturing extrajudicial militia movements, joined by a united interest in gun rights and masculine grievance. This “gun populism,” as associate professor Jennifer Carlson calls it, has been embraced by far-right Trump supporters, who have dubbed themselves “patriots.” Their adherents tend to be middle-class white men who support law enforcement while, at the same time, promoting a militaristic view of the world that supports violence and rejects professional expertise. The sheriff, long a staple of “good old boy” culture, the lawman who can claim democratic authority, is a natural ally.
This alliance was on display in the Michigan protests last spring, after armed protesters took over the Michigan capitol building during the legislative session. Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf—who would later speak in support of the militia members arrested for planning to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer—addressed a crowd at a May rally in Grand Rapids. He argued that the federal government’s only job was “protecting our borders” before praising militia members for being loyal adherents to an ancient code of duty: “Militia duty goes way back, hundreds of years before the constitution. When kings were out there, they made the farmers carry a sword.”
Adherents to the “constitutional sheriff” movement, of which Lamb and Leaf are members alongside Arpaio, argue that sheriffs have an obligation to protect their constituents from unconstitutional laws. Most constitutional sheriffs formally disavow racism and even use Rosa Parks as an inspirational talking point. Leaf, for example, said at the May rally (which took place at Rosa Parks Circle) that a true constitutional sheriff would not have arrested Parks because the law preventing her from sitting where she pleased was not constitutional.
But the constitutional sheriff movement has explicitly white supremacist roots. When the Supreme Court held in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation was unconstitutional, county sheriffs were among the Southern officials who defied the court’s decision. They claimed that, in fact, desegregation was unconstitutional and invoked a legal theory called “interposition,” which argues that states can independently decide federal laws are unconstitutional and nullify them.
The Supreme Court held that interposition was not a valid legal theory in 1958, but that hasn’t stopped the constitutional sheriff movement from using it as a tool to delegitimize state and federal governments. Sheriff Richard Mack, who founded the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association—the largest constitutional sheriff organization with a membership of some 400 sheriffs—revived the idea of interposition, telling NPR, “Sheriffs standing for freedom have the responsibility to interpose … wherever anybody is trying to diminish or violate the individual rights of our counties.”
This is precisely what the rioters who stormed D.C. wanted. Yes, they were fueled by misinformation. But they also felt justified to commit violent acts in public, bare-faced and on camera, because, in their eyes, the laws they were breaking weren’t real. Two days after the riot, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association issued a statement exonerating Trump and pushing the debunked claim that antifa (the shorthand for militant anti-fascist activists) was responsible for the violence.
Sheriffs who attended the pre-riot rally, like Lamb and West, are unlikely to face consequences where they live. One local activist started an online petition to remove West from office for his participation in the riot; that effort has been met with a very popular counterpetition in support of West. (West has also formed a 500-person “sheriff’s posse,” with many members citing weapons experience.)
Lamb, despite facing a state investigation for corruption, has remained popular in his county. He also has a wide following on social media; sells T-shirts emblazoned with his face, guns, and the text of the Constitution; and was a commentator on Live PD.
The constitutional sheriff’s movement stands to grow even without Trump as president. Trump supporters are planning to further their political goals through the election of like-minded sheriffs. Just last week, one Michigan militia member posted this message in a Facebook group: “While we are speaking about local offices we also need Sherriffs Elected in each county who understand the constitution & that they have the power within the County they serve Not the Federal Government.”
During the Grand Rapids rally in May, Leaf pointed to the Barry County sheriff badge on his chest, saying, “This isn’t really a badge, but a shield. It represents the knights protecting their kingdom.” Listeners cheered. Perhaps their kingdom finally felt within reach.
Support work like this for just $1
Slate is covering the stories that matter to you. Become a Slate Plus member to support our work. Your first month is only $1.