Remind Me Why We Have Sheriffs?

I hope you get a chance to read Matt Shuham's feature piece today about "constitutional sheriff" Dar Leaf. It really brings together the current rage for Trump era "voter fraud" conspiracy theories and our much longer-term interest in far-right anti-government radicalism. When I got to thinking about this a few weeks ago it suddenly occurred to me that almost always when there was one of these figures it was a sheriff. In this case I'm not talking about the so-called "constitutional sheriffs," though that's a big part of it. I'm talking about Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona or Alex Villanueva in LA County, David Clarke in Milwaukee. Like I said, these guys are always the sheriffs.

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One of the big reasons I think is that sheriffs often aren't tied into a formal system of political accountability or responsibility. They're usually elected of course and that's a fundamental accountability. But a city police force and its leadership, for all their problems, are responsible for public safety and usually report to politically accountable people — the mayor, the city council and so forth. They may have some degree of independence. But they're seldom totally independent. Needless to say this police force accountability does not always work perfectly. But at least the structure is there. Sheriffs departments are often an extra layer of police power in a region that already has a policing authority.

 See Also: CNN correspondent Whitney Wild downplayed the violent threat against Justice Brett Kavanaugh's life and warned about political violence from both sides, after an armed man was arrested outside the justice's home, Wednesday.  

Of course, a big part of the problem is precisely the accountability: They're elected. We don't usually elect the police chief. They usually report to a civilian. Yet another reason mimics our national political dynamics. Since sheriffs are county officials they often get political power from more suburban and rural areas but have varying degrees of authority in urban areas, often sharing that authority with police departments which have responsibility for ordinary crime. All of these factors spurs a great temptation for freelancing, a big temptation for highly politicized mischief.

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I'm only scratching the surface here of course. The precise nature of the office varies greatly in different states. But we've been following right-wing radicalism for many years, somehow this only really hit me quite recently. I knew it like everyone else at some level. But I'd just never focused on it, maybe because it is in fact right there in the open: it's always the sheriffs.

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