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Extremist Sheriffs Are Taking Over the Country One County at a Time

Former sheriff Richard Mack is an icon for right-wing militias. Now, he’s recruiting cops around the country for his cause: Ultimate power for local law enforcement

On July 10th, 37-year-old David Hurley stood amid a small crowd assembled at Pack Square in Asheville, North Carolina, pacing in the shade of oak trees while detailing plans for his future as sheriff of Buncombe County. “The biggest terrorist organization right now is the United States government,” Hurley said, receiving spontaneous applause. “It’s destroying every country around the world. And not because of doing good things for others, it’s because it’s all about power and money.”

You wouldn’t know Hurley holds extremist ideals by looking at his campaign page for the 2022 sheriff election in Buncombe County, which lists “police reform,” “human rights” and “accountability” as the three tenets of his agenda. The veteran, retired Raleigh police officer and devout Trump supporter is running, oddly enough, as a Democrat — perhaps because the county is firmly Democrat territory. But his public statements paint a very different picture of what Hurley believes a sheriff can, and should, be. 

“The sheriff is the ultimate power in America. It’s been the best-kept secret that they didn’t want to get out. Even sheriffs that are in the seat today don’t know the power that they have,” Hurley declared.

It’s not a coincidence that Hurley was speaking at a rally to oppose vaccines and COVID restrictions. As a self-styled “constitutional sheriff,” Hurley believes that a local sheriff has more authority than the courts and even the president in interpreting the Constitution. In practice, it means law enforcement refusing to enforce state health mandates, justifying illegal detainment and subverting federal guidelines in an effort to flex its own authoritarian power. 

The massive increase in believers in the constitutional sheriff movement over the last decade is the direct result of Richard Mack, a former sheriff himself and the founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). 

A new report from the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism details Mack’s decades-long efforts to make sheriffs an absolute authority, with the ability to implement their own political agendas in how and why they police. The ADL has identified dozens of sheriffs, as well as some police officers and elected officials, who associate themselves with the CSPOA. The report also details the growth of CSPOA’s perceived legitimacy in 2021, with local governments approving the group’s problematic training programs for official use and county governments joining CSPOA as members. 

Mack’s visibility has grown alongside the rise of the CSPOA, which was born in 2011 and coalesced many of Mack’s ideologies, borrowing from older precedents in right-wing extremism. (Mack himself has been implicated in right-wing plots, including the 2014 federal standoff with rancher Cliven Bundy.) 

There are around 3,100 sheriffs in America today — Mack claims he’s trained more than 400 sheriffs himself — and the movement is growing in scope. His ceaseless hustle on the speaking circuit means that more and more law enforcement leaders are absorbing his ideas, says Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the ADL. 

“There’s been a lot of attention on Oath Keepers in the past six months, with people talking about law enforcement agencies infiltrated by extremists. But if you add up known instances in the last 30 years of police officers who were tied to extremist groups, it’s not a very large number,” Pitcavage argues. “However, if there is one extremist group that has definitely, undeniably had success in recruiting not just law enforcement but senior law enforcement, it is the CSPOA.”

It’s not a coincidence that Mack is a founding member of the far-right extremist group Oath Keepers and a former board member. Indeed, Mack’s been a darling of the right for a long time, stretching back to his efforts to stymie gun regulations in the 1990s and his rebirth as a leading voice of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. In 2009, the same year he helped found the Oath Keepers, Mack published a document dubbed “County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope,” describing a sheriff as “the last line of defense” for liberty from government “tyranny” and justifying the use of local militias in conflicts with the state. 

The report notes that these ideas are taken from the violent 1970s anti-government extremist group Posse Comitatus, which later evolved into the current-day sovereign citizen movement. “The core belief is that the county is the highest level of government and that it can overrule anything from the federal or state level with the sheriff as an ultimate authority,” Pitcavage explains. “They believed [the sheriff’s] main responsibility was to protect their county from unconstitutional federal or state laws, agents or interlopers.” 

Joining the constitutional sheriff movement is made easy by the CSPOA, which offers training packages for law enforcement officers and civilians alike. They might as well be the same thing: Getting CSPOA “certified” means taking a six-week online course for $150 on “how to help end tyranny and peacefully restore liberty in your city,” and according to Mack, the sheriff training is “80 percent” similar to the civilian version. 

More than anything, participation plugs you into Mack himself, who channels an ideology of power with massive practical ramifications, as seen in what sheriffs have done across the country in the name of “constitutional” power, disguising their own right-wing agendas along the way. 

Convicted criminal and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio used Mack’s argument about local authority when he operated illegal “immigration round-ups,” encouraging unethical uses of force and ignoring court orders to stop the program. Longtime Oregon sheriff Glenn Palmer used his position to support Ammon Bundy and his extremist posse that took a wildlife refuge hostage in 2016, calling them “patriots” while authorities struggled to regain control. Dar Leaf, sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, has publicly tried to justify the Boogaloo plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer, suggesting the extremists were making a “citizen’s arrest.” 

Mack himself has spoken at white supremacist venues and cozied up to conspiracy theorists, the ADL report notes, encouraging sheriffs to rise up against COVID mask mandates and to report any potential “unconstitutional” acts. Pitcavage observes that when the CSPOA first emerged, Mack was promoting issues around gun control, and using their concepts to oppose federal and state gun control policies. That’s changed since 2020: “When the pandemic emerged, it gave them a whole new arena with which to promote their ideas.”

Especially concerning to Pitcavage is how CSPOA training has been approved for official law enforcement credit in Texas and Montana, despite obvious evidence that it’s a biased program operated by an extremist group. Then there’s the trend of the CSPOA recruiting entire counties to join as “members.” In May, Mack announced Lander County in Nevada as the first “CSPOA County.” Others are following suit, potentially giving way for structural changes and institutional support for sheriffs with extremist agendas. 

“It’s so new that people are going to have to wrestle with it. In some ways, state governments could easily nip the problem in the bud by not allowing, say, CSPOA trainings to be certified for POST credit. It’s mind boggling that anyone would approve it in the first place. It proves there’s no vetting happening,” Pitcavage says. “And with county memberships, the major thing to consider is just simply what you have here are actual government entities formally joining extremist groups. This is equivalent to if the City of Memphis joined the Michigan militia.” 

The number of law enforcement leaders who swear by the tenets of Mack’s constitutional sheriff movement is unclear, but more and more people are coming out of the woodwork, running for office on brash words designed to attract Trumpers, right-wing conspiracy nuts and anyone else who has a bone to pick with government intervention. “Just about every sheriff race in this country has at least one candidate running as a Constitutional sheriff,” Mack told VICE earlier this year. “Yes, I take credit for that. I think it’s wonderful.” 

North Carolina’s Hurley has spoken publicly about being in regular contact with Mack and ascribing to CSPOA’s principles. And he affirmed his mission on July 10th with fighting words. “The sheriff is the checks and balances. We’ve all been asking ourselves, ‘How can they do this? Isn’t there somebody to stop them?’ The sheriff is the one. The sheriff is the one who can look a mayor in the eye and say, ‘If you say that again, if you mandate masks again, if you vaccinate someone against their will, I’ll have you at the top of that jail,” he yelled, jabbing at the air with a pointed finger as cheers rose around him. “The sheriff is the only one who answers solely to the people.”