IN THE SHERIFF WE TRUST
This project, In the Sheriff We Trust, was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. The Howard Center is based at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and is an initiative of the Scripps Howard Fund in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. AZCIR is a nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom that focuses on data-driven investigative journalism.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which teaches that elected sheriffs must “protect their citizens from the overreach of an out-of-control federal government” by refusing to enforce any law they deem unconstitutional or unjust, has been expanding across the U.S., a collaborative investigation between the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
The sheriffs group has spread its ideology to at least 30 states, becoming more mainstream in part by securing state approval for taxpayer-funded law enforcement training. It has held formal trainings on its “constitutional” curriculum for law enforcement officers in at least 13 states over the past five years. In six states, the training was approved for law enforcement officers’ continuing education credits. The group also has supporters who sit on three state boards in charge of law enforcement training standards.
In addition, reporters found, at least a dozen U.S. counties influenced by the sheriffs group have considered “constitutional county” resolutions over the past two years. The resolutions range from a simple reaffirmation of support for the constitutional rights of county residents to empowering local government, including sheriffs, to refuse to enforce state and federal laws they interpret as unconstitutional. Two Nevada counties – Lander and Elko – have become lifetime CSPOA members, a step that includes a $2,500 fee paid directly to the sheriffs group.
To track the spread of the sheriffs’ group, reporters filed public records requests with state law enforcement standards and training boards in 48 states and the District of Columbia related to the group and its communications with officials. Reporters ultimately reviewed thousands of pages of emails and other correspondence, scoured financial records, corporate filings and court documents, and spoke with dozens of national extremism experts, community members, public officials and county sheriffs.
The Constitutional Sheriff and Peace Officers Association has for years railed against gun control laws, COVID public health mandates and alleged election fraud, ultimately presenting the sheriff as the ultimate arbiter of law. The group, which experts have labeled anti-democratic and anti-government, has also spread its ideology across the nation, seeking to become more mainstream in part by securing state approval for taxpayer-funded law enforcement training.
VIDEO: In the Sheriff We Trust
In an expansion of its ideology that pushes a supreme authority for county sheriffs, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association is encouraging a nascent movement of so-called “constitutional counties.” The movement builds off of Second Amendment sanctuary counties in an attempt to shift power away from the state and federal government and into the hands of county leaders, including elected sheriffs.
The Gorilla Learning Institute uses its tax-exempt status as a nonprofit to help fund other groups’ activities, including the Friends of CSPOA, a California chapter of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The institute is led by Sacramento County Board Supervisors member Sue Frost, who says its name references the gorilla as a peaceful, powerful and highly intelligent animal ready to fight if threatened and “guerrilla” fighters who “use creative tactics” to get the job done.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with AZCIR, spent the past seven months researching the national expansion of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The resulting project is a first-of-its-kind look at the nationwide impact of the group, which trains law enforcement officers and others that sheriffs have the right to ignore state or federal laws they deem unjust or unconstitutional.
Howard Center Reporters
PROJECT EDITORS: Maud Beelman, Lauren Mucciolo, Brandon Quester
RESEARCHERS: Jimmy Cloutier, Heaven LaMartz, Annabella Medina
PHOTO & VIDEO: Brendon Derr, Albert Serna Jr., Anisa Shabir, Isaac Stone Simonelli
GRAPHICS: Jim Jacoby
COPY EDITOR: Ian McGibboney
Special thanks to David Bodney, Matthew Kelley, Gregg Leslie and Mark Greenblatt.