On Jan. 6, 2021, Sheriff Chris West of Canadian County, Oklahoma attended former President Donald Trump’s rally, he says, as a “patriotic citizen.” He carried a “Make America Great Again” flag, chanted “Stop the Steal” and marched to the Capitol building. West claims that he left in the middle of the riot, as Trump supporters brutally attacked police officers and killed one.
West is also on the executive committee of the National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA), a “professional association dedicated to serving the Office of Sheriff.” Much of what the association does is lobby legislators for law enforcement funding; the group also killed bipartisan efforts to pass a federal law enforcement accountability bill.
While West argues that he was entitled to riot as a private citizen, there is no denying that his appearance at a violent insurrection in which far-right groups attacked law enforcement, defaced and stole property and terrified members of Congress in order to stop the lawful process of democracy suggests that he, too, believes that the 2020 election was invalid. (West has said that he was there to “support Trump.”)
After Jan. 6, the sheriffs’ association issued a statement condemning the violence of the day. Then-President of the NSA Sheriff Dave Mahoney wrote, “The action to unlawfully overwhelm the Capitol is indistinguishable from that of Antifa or any other lawless groups who chose to destroy cities and communities.” But, the organization has never sought to remove or censure West nor any of the other sheriffs who have since engaged in overt acts of election denial and illegal election investigations plainly intended to intimidate voters and subvert democracy.
Instead, the group appears committed to burying its white-hatted head in the sand. In 2022, NSA President Greg Champagne insisted that such election intimidation movements were “not on [his] radar.” “No sheriff that I am friends with believes in going out and promoting misinformation,” he said in an interview.
News outlets have identified over three dozen sworn law enforcement personnel who participated in Jan. 6. At least 19 have been charged with crimes, including assaulting officers. Some have been fired from their jobs, but not all. Yet no policing organization has reckoned with the fact that law enforcement officers, sworn to protect communities, instead broke the law, attacked their fellow cops and supported an insurrection.
To be clear, there is nothing to suggest that the leadership of the sheriffs’ association is intentionally undermining democracy. But they aren’t working very hard to stop the sheriffs who are.
When I asked the NSA spokesperson in the summer of 2021 about Pinal County, Arizona Sheriff Mark Lamb, a current candidate for Senate who has argued that the rioters on Jan. 6 were “very loving, Christian people [who] happen to support President Trump a lot,” the spokesperson described Lamb as a “unicorn” and expressed admiration for the candidate’s media savvy.
In the run-up to the 2022 election, Lamb partnered with the right-wing, Texas-based True the Vote and helped spread the false and misleading message that county sheriffs should be concerned with election “integrity,” despite no indication of any such powers nor need. Since then, he has not only misused funds intended for the welfare of incarcerated people but has also violated campaign finance laws by spending at least $28,000 on “campaign attire.”
Far from uplifting democracy in Arizona, Lamb has instead engaged in anti-democratic rhetoric, threatening his constituents who criticize him and even going so far as to suggest that he should not face public scrutiny, describing journalists at a Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting in October as “political activists” writing a “hit piece.” In the same meeting, Lamb said, “We have several political activists that show up at [Board of Supervisors Meetings] and use this very podium to engage in electioneering,” referring to residents who spoke during the call to the public. (One resident spoke in support of Lamb’s Senate campaign, to which the sheriff did not object.)
My analysis of the National Sheriffs’ Association Executive Committee found that at least half of the members have known links to far-rights groups, including the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and Protect America Now, whose mission is to “build a coalition of patriots throughout our country and stand up for America’s core values.”
This does not include the sheriffs and ex-sheriffs who lead committees or are part of the board of directors nor sheriffs who are leaders in other sheriff associations like the Western States Sheriffs Association or the mysterious “American Sheriff Alliance,” which does not have a website or membership list.
Many have made outrageous claims and openly supported anti-democracy groups. New Mexico Sheriff Mark Cage and South Dakota Sheriff Troy Wellman, for example, were both sheriff fellows at the Claremont Institute, the same institution where John Eastman, the lawyer who encouraged Trump to overturn the 2020 presidential election and faces both an indictment and disbarment, is also a senior fellow. Arizona Sheriff Leon Wilmot partnered with known election conspiracy theorists to investigate Latino community leaders, going so far as to send an investigator to knock on doors and harass innocent voters.
The sheriffs’ association remains silent even as far-right sheriffs and their political allies again gear up for campaigns of voter intimidation, lies about non-existent voter fraud and disinformation even as election workers face increased threats.
In the past few months, the National Sheriffs’ Association has tilted even further to the right, stoking anti-immigrant fears, praising the governors of states who are openly promoting conspiracy theories on the threats of immigrants while also threatening open debate and uplifting commentary that spreads well-worn lies.
If the NSA hopes to restore the legitimacy of the office of sheriff, as the organization claims, then the leaders need to clean their own house, ensuring that they provide honest information and support sheriffs who are not promoting insurrection. Restoring the public’s trust in law enforcement requires that organizations like the nation’s largest and most prominent sheriffs’ association promote, not hamper, democracy.
Jessica Pishko is an independent journalist and lawyer who focuses on how the criminal justice system and law enforcement intersects with political power. As a contributor to Democracy Docket, Pishko writes about the criminalization of elections and how sheriffs in particular have become a growing threat to democracy.