Janine Jackson interviewed the Reflective Democracy Campaign’s Brenda Choresi Carter about the power of sheriffs for the July 10, 2020, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.PlayStop pop out
Janine Jackson: Joe Arpaio is running for sheriff again in Arizona’s Maricopa County. Infamous for reinstituting chain gangs, running an outdoor tent city jail he himself described as a concentration camp, and putting people in solitary confinement if they didn’t understand instructions in English, Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a court order to stop profiling Latinx people.
But if Arpaio upsets you, a new report shows that concerns are due about the role of sheriff itself. How much do you know about their power and accountability? If we’re going to engage law enforcement reform seriously, sheriffs have to be part of that conversation.
The report, Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs, comes from the Reflective Democracy Campaign, and we’re joined now by Brenda Choresi Carter, who directs that project. She joins us by phone from Connecticut. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Brenda Choresi Carter.
Brenda Choresi Carter: Thank you for having me.
JJ: Before we think about who sheriffs are, tell us a little about the particular role that sheriffs play that is structurally, if you will, concerning, and inviting of abuse.
BCC: Yes, sheriffs are, I would argue, possibly the most troubling elected office in America. And that’s really saying something. They are an extremely unique position. So they’re elected in 46 states. Many of us don’t know that we elect our sheriffs, but most states do elect sheriffs. There are 3,000 elected sheriffs nationwide. And then, of course, they have many deputies who work for them.
And what makes them singularly troubling is, I would say, a combination of three things:
There’s a really shocking lack of accountability for sheriffs. The way that the elected office of sheriff is constructed and defined in most states really shields them from any kind of meaningful oversight. They are extremely independent, and, for the most part, really answer to no one except the people who elect them.
Unlike with police officers and police departments, for instance, where they’re part of city and municipal governments; they at least have to nominally participate in things like getting their budgets approved and answering to city councils and, increasingly, answering to civilian oversight commissions or other kinds of accountability measures. There’s almost nothing like that in place for sheriffs.
The second thing, that combines with that to make sheriffs really troubling, is what we found in our study, which is what we describe as apartheid-level demographics: Sheriffs are 97% men and 92% white men. So when you combine the incredible concentration of power and lack of accountability, with the concentration of that power in the hands of one demographic group, that makes for a very combustible and dangerous situation.
And the third thread that I would weave into the troubling nature of sheriffs is, in fact, their very history. The contemporary origins of the role of sheriffs can be found in the violent control of Black people in the aftermath of slavery, the leasing of prison laborers for profit, and in the resistance to civil rights. That doesn’t mean every single sheriff in the country has participated in those things. But for the most part—particularly in the South, where sheriffs tend to be particularly prevalent and powerful—the role was really rooted in those very violent and racist practices.
JJ: And I think we want to add, on top of that, a kind of mystique about sheriffs that media, I think, abet, which is the idea that—and structurally, they are different than other law enforcement—but the idea that they can be renegade, that they can be almost lawless, and that that’s somehow for the good.
I think Joe Arpaio is a good example of that. But I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the Constitutional Sheriffs thing, which is an example of—you imagine that these folks are under the rubric of civil laws. And yet there’s a real renegade mentality, among a substantial group of them, that really takes the sheriff thing to the next level. Can you talk a little about that?
BCC: That’s right, and I think your highlighting the media representations of sheriffs is right on, in terms of its relationship to this idea of sheriffs as kind of renegades, or somehow above the law, but simultaneously being the law. And the so-called “Constitutional Sheriffs” movement is a far-right movement that has been around for decades, and basically encourages its members and its participants, who are sheriffs elected to enforce the laws, to actually exercise their own discretion in how and whether they enforce those laws.
So there is a significant group of sheriffs around the country who refuse to enforce gun control measures, for instance. More recently, there are a group of sheriffs around the country who are refusing to enforce public health measures, like stay-at-home requirements and those kinds of things, that have been put in place by governments because of the Covid pandemic. And their argument is that they are actually the ultimate law enforcement authority in their jurisdiction, and they can choose to enforce these laws or not to, as they see fit.
JJ: It’s kind of amazing and surprising, and, again, I think that lots of folks will think that it’s some kind of “out West thing” that doesn’t relate to them. And so it does seem important to bring it back to—sheriffs, in many places, they’re doing law enforcement on the street, but they also manage jails, right? The role is not like anything that you might think of a general cop on the beat doing. It extends over various purviews. And the fact that, for example, a lot of what they handle is domestic violence cases, where it matters very much that they are men, where that’s impactful. So while we’re not trying to say, “Change the demographics of law enforcement, and you’ll change everything about law enforcement,” it is meaningful day-to-day that these are overwhelmingly white men, who are not representative of the communities that they’re policing. It’s impactful, yeah?
BCC: That’s right. And I think when we see this kind of combination of extreme lack of accountability in power, and extremely skewed demographics, right, where women and people of color are virtually absent from these roles, it really raises questions about whether the role itself is legitimate.
So, absolutely, I think one avenue to change is to push for more reflective sheriffs, right, people who actually reflect our communities, who are women and people of color in proportion to the population. And there have been exciting and very promising sheriff’s elections in recent years, where women and people of color have run for these offices on reform platforms, and have instituted all kinds of much needed reforms, and that’s very promising. At the same time, the history, the demographics, and the power and lack of accountability of these roles really raise questions about whether it is in itself a legitimate position.
There are paths to real change here that do run through communities and voters, but, as you noted, the majority of sheriffs run for election unopposed. So this is not a robust, competitive playing field. Sheriffs are elected at the county level, so many of us don’t pay attention, or very much attention, to elections at that level. They also, like many local elections, tend to really be determined in the primary, if there is one, because of the way the population breaks down in terms of partisan leaning. So there are all kinds of reasons why these elections tend to not be particularly, like I said, robust, or have a lot of competition or citizen engagement. But there’s no reason that they need to stay that way.
JJ: And part of changing things is a media spotlight, right? I mean, it’s part of just calling attention to the particular role that sheriffs play and asking questions about it.
BCC: Yes, and I think the long overdue reckoning that law enforcement generally is facing in America right now gives us a real opportunity to deal with sheriffs. As we all know, there are conversations about law enforcement in this country that are happening in a totally new way. And the possibilities for change are probably greater than they ever have been. I think what’s important is that we understand that when we say “law enforcement,” or we say “police,” we understand that that’s a pretty broad category that includes this incredibly important role of sheriffs, and that we don’t forget that this isn’t just about municipal police forces, although that’s, of course, incredibly important. But for large parts of the country, sheriffs are the chief law enforcement officer. In the absence of a municipal police force, the sheriff sort of runs the law enforcement system. So we would be missing an incredibly important piece of the deeply flawed, and now under scrutiny, law enforcement system in this country if we didn’t understand that sheriffs were an incredibly important part of it.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. You can find their report, Confronting the Demographics of Power: America’s Sheriffs, on their website, WhoLeads.us. Brenda Choresi Carter, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
BCC: My pleasure. Thank you.