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 an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit newsroom dedicated to statewide, data-driven investigative reporting.
The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism, in collaboration with the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, spent the past seven months researching the national expansion of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA.
The resulting project is a first-of-its-kind look at the nationwide impact of the controversial sheriffs group, which trains law enforcement officers and others that sheriffs have the right to ignore state or federal laws that they deem unjust or unconstitutional.
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. Alabama and Delaware were excluded because their laws don’t allow non-residents to make public records requests.
These requests sought all records, documents, communications or other materials from 2018 to 2023 that contained certain key phrases, such as “constitutional training” and the “Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association,” as well as records that were sent to, from or included mention of the sheriff group’s leadership.
Thirty-two state agencies responded to the requests; 15 requests were still pending by publication. Two requests were denied. Of the state agencies that responded, only 14 said they had relevant records.
Because most law enforcement officers are required to participate in ongoing training to maintain their skills, their continuing education must be certified. How that’s handled varies by state. For example, some states leave training and accreditation decisions to the state law enforcement oversight boards, while others delegate them to local law enforcement agencies.
To understand the administrative policies of each state, reporters surveyed law enforcement training and standards boards on these questions:
- Do law enforcement agencies have independent authority to choose their training?
- Does accredited training require approval from the state training and standards board?
- Does non-accredited training require approval from the state training and standards board?
- Can third parties partner with law enforcement agencies to conduct training?
Forty-five state agencies responded to the survey.
Reporters also requested records from 39 sheriff’s offices where a sheriff had either hosted a CSPOA training or was previously identified as an affiliate of the group. Responsive records included audio recordings and agendas for CSPOA board meetings. Both revealed CSPOA’s strategy as articulated by its leadership.
Reporters found several sheriffs who had refused to enforce certain laws or aligned themselves with the “constitutional sheriff” ideology, but they were not included if reporters could not verify their affiliation with CSPOA.
To label sheriffs as affiliated with CSPOA, reporters used the following criteria:
- Sheriffs engaged publicly with CSPOA, including by becoming board members, issuing statements of support or appearing on the group’s webinar
- Stated publicly or in public records that they are a member or affiliated with CSPOA
- Hosted a CSPOA training in their county
- Partnered with the CSPOA to appear at or organize an event
Reporters identified states as having CSPOA activity if any one of the following occurred:
- Hosted a CSPOA training in the state, regardless of whether it counted toward law enforcement continuing education credit
- Hosted a rally or other event for the general public in which CSPOA participated
- There were CSPOA-affiliated individuals, including sheriffs, on state boards in charge of law enforcement standards and training
Reporters were conservative in determining which states to count as hosting CSPOA activity. For example, a CSPOA supporter contacted Missouri officials about the group’s training curriculum, but it was unclear if any training actually occurred. In Georgia, a training was scheduled but later canceled. In Indiana, a former sheriff who was a CSPOA board member helped the group train law enforcement in other states. Two Oregon sheriffs have appeared at CSPOA webinars and out-of-state events. And in North Carolina, training is scheduled for September 2023.
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.
Finally, reporters and editors from the Howard Center and AZCIR interviewed Richard Mack in person, based on his condition that they observe a condensed version of the seminars he provides to law enforcement officers. Elements of his training, including video captured by reporters, appear throughout this project.