Jurisprudence

The Local Elected Officials Who Are Tanking Police Reform

Officers with riot gear on stand in front of an armored vehicle at sunset.
State patrol officers stand by a sheriff armored vehicle during a protest over the death of George Floyd last summer. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

After Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in May of 2020, police reform on the federal level seemed more possible than it had ever been. Kamala Harris, in the run-up to being chosen as Joe Biden’s running mate, made police reform a specific piece of her agenda, despite her mixed record on the issue as a prosecutor. Harris went on The View and talked about “reimagining how we do public safety in America.” At a Democratic fundraiser that summer, she said, “We need to have serious police reform. … Joe and I are very clear about this.”

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Invigorated—or panicked—Congress attempted bipartisan reform. The goal was to come to some sort of agreement over a host of federal reforms, including changes to acceptable use-of-force standards, tying federal funding to local reforms, and fixing qualified immunity, which is the legal doctrine that prevents people injured or killed by police conduct from pursuing successful lawsuits. The Republican Senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, voiced his support for reform and promised to work with Democratic Sen. Corey Booker to hash out the exact details.

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Those talks crumbled last week, leaving people who were counting on some type of reform—at least to justify the work of thousands of advocates and to legitimize the suffering of millions more who come into contact with law enforcement every year. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Fraternal Order of Police issued a joint statement expressing their disappointment that talks had flopped. The statement also clarified, “Despite some media reports, at no point did any legislative draft propose ‘defunding the police,’” which spoke to Scott’s misleading claims that proposals which made federal funding dependent on police reform amounted to “defunding the police.” (Despite Scott’s claim, federal funding only accounts for less than a quarter of police budgets.)

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The push to point fingers led us to one highly influential group: the sheriffs. Only about 1 in 4 sworn officers work for sheriffs departments, so while their mark on politics feels outsize, it is also not insurmountable.

During the bipartisan talks over the summer, Scott was clear that he would not support any legislation that was not backed by the National Sheriffs’ Association, the largest group representing all U.S. sheriffs, which elected new leadership this year that included one sheriff who was present at the Capitol on January 6. (The sheriff, Chris West of Oklahoma, says he did not enter the Capitol building.) Both Scott and Sen. Lindsey Graham were adamant that sheriffs be included in all reform talks.

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The National Sheriffs’ Association purports to represent all of the elected sheriffs in the U.S., which is over 3,000, 90% of whom are white men. This year, the NSA “sheriff of the year” was South Carolina Sheriff Leon Lott, who has been in office since 1997. The NSA gained more power under Donald Trump, whose then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions received an award from the NSA and called sheriffs “Anglo Saxon heritage of law enforcement.” Lott, for his part, called Black Lives Matters protestors “violent gangs, outside agitators and others who planned to burn down Columbia police headquarters,” and focused his energy on arresting them. He is also, apparently, one of the most influential politicians in South Carolina, in part because of his appearances on Live PD.

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So why did the sheriffs object to the reform bill? The main sticking point for the NSA was a provision that would make sheriffs, who are elected, liable for the misbehavior of their deputies. Sheriffs immediately began to object to Sen. Booker’s provisions and partnered with the National Association of Police Organizations (a coalition of police unions) to issue a fear-mongering letter outlining the group’s “grave concerns,” an opinion echoed by Jonathan Thompson, executive director of the NSA, who is not an elected sheriff.

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Even the Fraternal Order of Police, a group not known for favoring progressive reforms, felt that the sheriffs were being unduly difficult, and its executive director told the New York Times, that the NSA “is often upset, and sometimes it is difficult to ascertain the exact reason for it.”

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This is no surprise. In general, sheriffs are more politically conservative and less likely to support policing reforms. Research by Michael Zoroob, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Boston Area Research Initiative, analyzed sheriff elections from 1958 through 2018 and found that not only did sheriffs serve longer terms, but they also remained in office even when the political trends of their county changed.

One of the reasons sheriffs persist in office despite changing attitudes is that they create effective lobbying groups in the form of state sheriff associations, which usually include every elected sheriff in a state. While some sheriffs may be Democrat and more liberal, state sheriff associations skew much more right-wing and are often dominated by the sheriffs in more conservative, more rural counties. In this way, even when a state is dominated by Democrats—Virginia, Washington, and Maryland, for example—the sheriff association remains a strong voice for the right.

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Take, for example, several statements from local sheriffs after the federal talks failed. The South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, Sen. Scott’s home state, issued its own statement glorifying Scott’s take on “defund.” “Senator Scott maintained an open mind throughout the process,” the September 22 letter read in part. The president of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, York County Sheriff Kevin Tolson, issued his own letter, arguing that some of the proposed provisions in the federal legislation were “de facto defunding the police,” echoing Sen. Scott and contradicting the national police associations. (It’s worth nothing that York County is around 75 percent white and Sheriff Tolson’s last claim to fame was when he made a passionate Facebook post – now deleted – condemning protestors who kneeled during the national anthem.)

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In light of the failures of federal reforms, many have pointed to successful state reforms. But here, too, sheriffs present substantial challenges to change.

In Washington, for example, the legislature passed a slate of policing reforms that became state law this month, including a law that requires de-escalation as well as probable cause before engaging in a chase of a fleeing person. Sheriffs across the state objected immediately and loudly, blaming the reforms for increased crime and calling out that the laws had “handcuffed” law enforcement.

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The Washington State Sheriffs’ Association demanded clarification from the governor on the new laws, and the president, Sheriff Tom Jones, insisted the new laws would make people less safe. Another sheriff, Clark County Sheriff Chuck Atkins, issued a public statement warning his constituents that his office would be unable to respond to all calls for service. Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza complained to a community group, “I’m telling you this, I’m common sense, I’m a meat and potato guy. This doesn’t have the smell test. It smells like BS.”

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Sheriffs in Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida have also opposed reforms in recent years through extensive lobbying. These groups have used their collective power and influence to argue against criminal system reforms and have generated headlines and research to support measures like bills that would punish immigrants and protestors.

What can politicians and activists do to limit the power of sheriffs to block police reform? One way is to be clear with voters and decision-makers that sheriffs are not above accountability through legislative change in addition to popular elections. While sheriffs are written into the state constitution in over 33 states and created by state statute in 13 states, there is no legal reason why sheriffs are not subject to legislative reforms the same way police agencies are. Right now, sheriffs are barely in the line of sight. Biden’s platform does not even mention sheriffs; nor do most major proposals for criminal system reform. There is no reason to listen to sheriffs when they demand exceptions; they are not exceptional.

Even the National Sheriffs’ Association acknowledges that the “oath of office” does not confer “extraordinary powers or duties.” To the extent sheriffs are elected, it is their political stance and partisanship that dictates their reluctance to reform, not the office itself.

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