Researchers see rise of ‘Constitutional Sheriffs’ as threat to democracy. Lawmen say they are its defenders.
- Ivey is one of at least 5 Florida sheriffs with overt ties to Constitutional Sheriffs movement
- Most constitutional sheriffs formally disavow racism, use Rosa Parks as inspirational talking point
- Ivey, advisory board member of Protect America Now, is a key spokesman for that group
On Jan. 18, 2021, just days before Joe Biden was sworn in as president and less than two weeks after the Capitol riot, Sheriff Wayne Ivey penned a column for Space Coast Daily in which he declared: “Serving as a Constitutional Sheriff means standing strong in defense of our citizens, our cops and our Constitution.”
Ivey had just won his third term as sheriff and was writing to inform people against the backdrop of the chaos 12 days earlier that he had decided to change the name of his “Re-Elect Wayne Ivey” Facebook page to “Constitutional Sheriff Wayne Ivey American Patriot.”
Ivey said he made the move because in 2013 while being sworn in as sheriff of Brevard County for the first time, he took an oath to support, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. “In doing so I made a commitment to serve as the first and last line of defense for our citizens, essentially to serve as a ‘Constitutional Sheriff’ that is unwavering in the protection of our rights and freedoms.”
To Ivey’s supporters in Brevard County and his followers on Facebook who love his videos of choirs singing the national anthem and his uncompromising Facebook Live standups in support of law enforcement, this was just the kind of patriotic-packed move that they have come to expect from a man who sports a rendition of the U.S. Constitution tattooed on his upper arm.
“Thankful that we have a Constitutional sheriff! God bless you!,” wrote one Facebook user. “Sheriff Ivey, we are blessed to have you as our protector,” said another.
But according to researchers and monitors of growing trends of right-wing extremism in America, Ivey’s declaration harkens back to something far darker and more menacing than just a lawman asserting his noble intention to defend the supreme law of the United States. They see the rise of self-declared “Constitutional Sheriffs” and the organizations which recruit and purport to represent them as a potential threat to American democracy and the very document they claim to protect.
Ivey is one of at least five Florida sheriffs with overt ties to the Constitutional Sheriffs movement. According to experts who follow groups like the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a foundational belief of the movement is the notion that sheriffs stand above the courts, above the president of United States and other authorities in interpreting the meaning of the many provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
Simply put, they say, sheriffs are the ultimate authority on what is and what is not constitutional, allowing them to interpret and implement the law as they see fit.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, or CSPOA, spells out this tenet on its website. “The law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county,” it says.
To people like Michael German, a former FBI special agent who embedded with militias and is now a fellow with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty & National Security program, the language of the movement is worrying and dovetails with messages by right-wing militias and extremist groups.
“It’s troubling when any law enforcement official claims they’re above the law, and that they are the sovereign. It’s troubling to have a person with that kind of authority and empowered to use force to exert their authority, that would flirt with these ideas,” he said.
German was quick to point out, however, that as of right now the constitutional sheriffs are all talk. No illegal or extremist acts have been traced to them, though many like-minded sheriffs cheered on the “Stop the Steal” movement and some participated in the march on the Capitol on January 6.
German said what worries him are the kinds of people and groups listening to these sheriffs when they claim abuses of the First Amendment and threats to the Second.
“Far right militant groups often adopt the same or similar ideology that suggests that the sheriff’s department is the legitimate law enforcement authority,” German said. “Obviously, any kind of encouragement that those groups get from a group that that comes from a position of authority reinforcing their viewpoint can be damaging to our society.”
Sheriff Ivey refused to answer questions for this story. BCSO spokesman Tod Goodyear initially denied that either he or Ivey were “aware of any point where he has promoted or discussed the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer’s Association.” He also said the “Facebook page Constitutional Sheriff Wayne Ivey is not affiliated with that association.”
Yet, Ivey is close to the man who created the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer’s Association, has enjoyed his endorsement in the past, and still speaks positively about him and the movement.
The Arizona lawman who started a movement
Long before Richard Mack founded the The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association in 2011, he attained folk-hero status in far-right circles when as sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, he signed on as a plaintiff in a 1994 lawsuit against the Clinton Administration over the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act that required federal background checks for firearm purchases.
The suit went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, resulting in a 5-4 ruling in 1997 in his favor that watered down the gun control law. Mack still references his lawsuit frequently in public appearances, often joking that he “sued the Clintons and lived to tell the tale.”
Mack served as sheriff from 1988 to 1996 and afterwards did public relations work for the Gun Owners of America, a firearm rights group that has criticized the National Rifle Association for being too compromising.
Mack also made an unsuccessful run for Congress in 2006 as a Libertarian candidate. In 2009 he published a book County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope. In the introduction, he says America is on the brink of “utter despotism,” the threat: creeping Marxist ideology.
“Let us not be deceived; the political whining for universal health care, gun control, forced equality through governmental redistribution of wealth, and the removal of religious beliefs and expressions from our public institutions, all come directly from the Marxist platform.”
Sheriffs, he proposed, are best placed to counter this threat with the mandate of the people who elect them. It is his belief that sheriffs have unsurpassed law enforcement powers within their own county, well above that of the federal government.
To support his hypothesis, he draws on the civil war-era legal theories of interposition and nullification. Interposition refers to the right of the states to protect their interests from federal violation deemed by those states to be dangerous or unconstitutional. Nullification is the theory that states can invalidate federal law it considers unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court held that interposition was not a valid legal theory 63 years ago. In Cooper v. Aaron, 358 U.S. 1 (1958), the court rejected interposition explicitly when invoked to block enforcement of federal law, upholding the principle that the Supreme Court and the lower federal courts alone have the power to declare federal laws unconstitutional, not the states.
These discredited but still embraced principles have become the cornerstone for the CSPOA since its founding in 2011.
But even before Mack founded the CSPOA, he was keeping some controversial friends. For nearly seven years, Mack sat on the board of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia which the FBI has linked to the Capitol Riots, with several members facing federal conspiracy charges. Mack quit the Oath Keepers around 2016, he told FLORIDA TODAY, but maintains a friendship with its founder Stewart Rhodes.
“I’m not militia-oriented,” Mack said of his reason for leaving, adding that “Oath Keepers is not a criminal problem in America. And anybody who says that Oath Keepers is a criminal problem is a liar, and it as a matter of fact, anybody who says that militia groups are a criminal problem in America is a liar.”
Following the Sandy Hook massacre, Mack in 2013 orchestrated a campaign to get sheriffs to affirm their support for the Second Amendment and refuse to enforce any federal gun control actions. Dozens of sheriffs signed on, hundreds more issued independent statements to the same effect. Sheriff Ivey was among them, according to a web-archived CSPOA document.
In 2014 Mack drew attention over his reported involvement in strategizing the Bundy standoff in Nevada in which armed supporters of cattle rancher Cliven Bundy faced off with law enforcement over cattle grazing rights on federal land. Mack, one of the protestors at the Bundy ranch, had told Fox News that they were “strategizing to put all the women up at the front” as “tactical ploy” in the event federal agents opened fire. He later walked back those comments.
Spreading the word beyond cops
Mack said the CSPOA’s core mission is education: spreading the word. But Mack said he didn’t know the exact number of constitutional sheriffs who belonged to his group because he does not keep a membership list.
Researchers don’t believe him. A review by Political Research Associates in 2019 estimated that since 2013 some 550 sheriffs have participated in the CSPOA, with 267 still in office at the time.
A significant presence, Political Research Associates noted, was to be found in the leadership of state sheriffs’ associations and the National Sheriff’s Association, a professional and lobbying organization which represents thousands of sheriffs, deputies and other law enforcement and public safety professionals nationwide.
FLORIDA TODAY identified at least four sheriffs with public links to the CSPOA that hold leadership positions in the Florida Sheriffs Association: Sheriff Ivey chairs the FSA training committee, Lafayette County Sheriff Brian Lamb is the FSA Sgt. at Arms and signed onto Mack’s 2013 pledge; Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly advertises a CSPOA endorsement on his site and is on the FSA board of directors; Marion County Sheriff and FSA board member Billy Woods’ chief deputy Robert Douglas served on the CSPOA board of directors.
The coronavirus pandemic has also provided Mack a unique opportunity to expand his message and recruit followers by tapping into anti-lock down and anti-mask sentiments.
Now with a Democrat again in the White House, Mack’s launching a barnstorming tour of the USA. Since mid May, Mack along with several conservative activists has embarked on a cross-country speaking tour called “Arise USA! The Resurrection Tour.”
Mack says his focus has shifted away from recruitment of law enforcement officers towards spreading his message to the people, in order to generate grassroots support. He will be making stops in Jacksonville, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa and Naples in August.
“I spend more time on educating and getting the word out that we have got to get the people of this country working with their local officials to restore liberty in America,” he said.
Cloee Cooper, a research analysts for Political Research Associates, a social justice think tank that investigates right-wing extremism, says that organizations such as the CSPOA are part of the so-called “Patriot Movement.”
“The Patriot Movement is kind of complex because it takes a more of a colorblind approach to race in the US, but many of its members have always been, and continue to be cozy, or close with actual white nationalists,” she said. “They often echo a lot of the language of white nationalists, or white supremacists, but do it in a bit of a more colorblind way.”
A good example of that division is the Oath Keepers militia, which allows people of color in their ranks and has clashed with white supremacist and neo-nazi groups at events. Meanwhile, the three percenters militia group disavows racist ideologies, but many of its members have been found posting racist content on social media, and the group has displayed hostility and sometimes violence against Muslims and immigrants, according to the Anti-Defamation League, or ADL.
FLORIDA TODAY approached several prominent national conservative think tanks for comment on this story. None opted to comment. The American Enterprise Institute said the issue of Constitutional Sheriffs ‘doesn’t fall into any of our scholars’ research areas.”
While Mack’s critics point to affiliations with violent and sometimes racist figures, Mack maintains his group is nonviolent and is open to anyone of any race, ethnicity, gender or religion.
Most constitutional sheriffs formally disavow racism and use Rosa Parks as an inspirational talking point. Mack often states that a true constitutional sheriff would not have arrested Parks because the law preventing her from sitting where she pleased was not constitutional.
Still, the Southern Poverty Law Center points out Mack’s appearance on “white nationalist” radio programs such as James Edwards’ “The Political Cesspool.” Mack also appeared on “Patriot Radio” hosted by Matt Shea, a former Washington state representative. Shea was also a speaker at a CSPOA conference. Shea was removed as chair of that state’s Republican Caucus after he was investigated by the FBI and the state legislature for domestic terrorism.
Mack for his part dismissed allegations against Shea as being ginned up by fake news and a “thuggish” FBI. “Matt Shea is not a domestic terrorist. Matt Shea is a good man,” he said. “I’d trust him with my wife.”
Mack pushed back on characterizations that his group is extremist, accusing critics of having “an agenda” to “raise money from donors.”
“Republicans and Democrats destroy our Constitution and don’t go by the Constitution, and are part of the corruption, and have created a culture of corruption. And then you don’t think they’re gonna get mad at me because they love the power, and they love to win, and they love money, and they love the prison system that they have made into a multi-billion dollar business?”
On the ADL and SPLC, Mack says “they hate just about everybody that believes in the Constitution. They call racists and bigots and white supremacist and all that … that’s just baloney.”
But, while Mack insists his movement is peaceful, he says it might not remain that way.
“I guarantee you, if we get the people and the sheriffs working together to do this, that it will keep this movement for freedom peaceful, but if we continue to frustrate people so much with the oppressive oppression, and abuse of these cruel thugs from Washington DC, it will not remain peaceful, and I am praying and doing everything I can to keep it peaceful,” he said.
Two weeks after the Capitol Riot, the CSPOA backed off it’s initial statement pushing the false claim that Antifa was behind the riot. On January 19, CSPOA issued a new statement stressing non-violence. “Let’s allow for the peaceful transition of power,” they said.
“Let us do nothing to play into ‘their’ hands. Let’s allow for a peaceful transfer of power and then be ready to create Constitutional remedies at the local level,” the statement said in part.
Wayne Ivey, Constitutional Sheriff and patriot
While Sheriff Ivey may not say whether he is a card-carrying member of the CSPOA, what is certain is that he and Mack have a relation that goes back until at least 2012 when the former Arizona lawman endorsed Ivey’s first bid for Brevard County Sheriff.
In 2012, Ivey was publicly boasting about his endorsement by Sheriff Mack, portraying it as the imprimatur of a leading light in law enforcement.
“I am honored to receive Sheriff Mack’s endorsement,” he said at the time. “Upholding the oath to the Constitution and maintaining the liberties of our citizens is essential and a vital part of our job as criminal justice professionals and leaders,” he wrote in January 2012 Facebook post which also cited the CSPOA.
Asked about his ties to Mack and the CSPOA, BCSO spokesman Tod Goodyear would only say that Sheriff Ivey’s Facebook page was not affiliated with the CSPOA. “The Sheriff stated he would not be commenting further on this matter,” Goodyear added, saying he will not speak to FLORIDA TODAY.
Being a “Constitutional Sheriff” has certainly become a central plank in Ivey’s messaging on his Facebook page and in various recent interviews with conservative news networks like News Max, OANN and Fox.
Ivey has made his idea of the U.S. Constitution a key part of his image, whether it’s the tattoo on his arm or his often used catchphrase that he stands for the “three C’s: Our citizens, cops and Constitution.” Last year, in January 2020, Ivey steered the county commission to pass a purely symbolic resolution reaffirming their commitment to the Constitution.
The most Ivey has ever talked about what it means to be a Constitutional Sheriff was in April when he was interviewed by a conservative podcast called Liberty Monks.
“I’m interested in how you became a Constitutional Sheriff and what that means,” asked host Jamie Mundy.
“Well, you know, when I was running the first time in 2012. I had an opportunity to have lunch with an old sheriff, a very popular sheriff here in the country, a sheriff by the name of Richard Mack,” Ivey said, adding that in addition to speaking and having lunch with Mack several times, he also attended a CSPOA conference in Las Vegas.
“One of the things you learned is that the Constitution… that was put there a long, long time ago, is the strongest and the most important piece of the American foundation. It’s what separates us from everybody else. It’s what makes everyone want to cross the border and come here to our country to have rights and freedoms that are guaranteed to them,” Ivey said.
But now, Ivey said, the Constitution and the country as a whole is “under attack.”
“I think it is an all out attack on it. I think there are those that want to push the socialist agenda. I think there are those that think the Constitution is outdated, I think there are those that quite frankly don’t understand what the Constitution does.” The media, Ivey said, is “madly exploiting” free speech, for example.
Protect America Now – a new project
Protect America Now, a new group strongly backed by Ivey, was founded by Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Lamb. Lamb is also a close associate of Mack. Representatives for Lamb acknowledged a request for an interview, but ignored subsequent messages from a reporter.
Lamb is no stranger to conservative causes and, like Ivey and many other sheriff’s, an outspoken supporter of former President Donald J. Trump.
On Jan. 6, Sheriff Lamb delivered a speech in Phoenix during the ongoing riot at the Capitol building in Washington D.C. He blamed the attack partly on former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for unnamed crimes and repeated President Trump’s false claims about election fraud.
He lamented that the Supreme Court had not taken up Trump’s case to overturn the results of the election: “This is about the fact that our Supreme Court isn’t hearing our voices. This is the fact that our governor and our governments are not hearing our voices.”
He went on to add: “I don’t know how loud we have to get before they have to listen to us and know we will no longer tolerate them stripping our freedoms away.”
Then he said: “Now I’m limited to what I can do as the sheriff, but if you live in Pinal County, I assure you I can fight for your freedom,” exhorting his followers to “be vigilant” and to “fight for the Constitution, freedom, and the American way of life.”
The landing page of Protect America Now reads ” TOGETHER WE WILL STAND STRONG AGAINST LAWLESSNESS. We support Sheriffs and law enforcement members that believe in God, Family and Freedom.”
The Protect America Now website states three main objectives as its mission:
- To break through the “fake news” media and educate Americans on how “Sheriffs and law enforcement are standing for our Constitution and law and order.”
- Build a coalition of patriots: “We are heading out across the country to identify people who agree with our mission and prepare them to take action”
- Activate the movement: “the future of our country is at stake. We will keep you up to date when elected officials, the fake news and an over-reaching government try to make America less safe, less secure and less free.”
Sheriff Ivey, an advisory board member of Protect America Now, has emerged as the most prominent spokesman for the group along with Lamb.
In a March video posted to his Constitutional Sheriff Facebook page Ivey delivered a two minute monologue set to dramatic orchestral music, describing Protect America Now as “a collective effort by sheriffs across the country who stand as the first and last line of defense for our citizens, our cops and our Constitution.”
“Sadly our United States Constitution is under attack at every level,” Ivey said but noted that the Protect America Now movement was growing every day. The group now posts a membership of 39 sheriffs plus its 7-member advisory board.
Some of Protect America Now’s first Florida members also have CSPOA ties: Bradford Sheriff Gordon Smith, who spoke of CSPOA membership on Sons and Daughters of Liberty Radio and Marion County’s Billy Woods. None of Florida’s Protect America Now members agreed to talk to a reporter about the organization.
Most of Protect America Now’s media appearances, including those by Ivey, focus on immigration, the crisis on the border, but the second amendment is also a feature.
“This is a CSPOA-like group that has chosen as its own focus primarily to be immigration,” says Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
Cooper and Pitcavage also wondered whether Protect America Now was an attempt to rebrand the movement without the “baggage” of Richard Mack and his ties. For now though, the focus is primarily law enforcement and anti-immigration.
Many of Protect America Now’s Sheriffs also signed onto a letter this year from the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR) including Ivey, Lamb, and Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw.
A dangerous ideology?
Michael German, the former FBI agent, did not mince his words.
“Anybody who would claim that their authority supersedes everybody else’s I think, is somebody you have to worry about, but most of this is on the talking circuit rather than actual physical conflict in real life,” he said.
But the threat that concerns German more than “rhetorical flourishes” is the infiltration of law enforcement ranks by far-right militant groups.
Pitcavage, who has testified before Congress on white supremacist infiltration of the military and authored A Guidebook on Extremism for Law Enforcement, said he is concerned by the CSPOA.
“It is an anti-government extremist group that explicitly tries to recruit law enforcement into its ranks and promote its ideology among law enforcement,” he said, adding that an extremist in a position of significant law enforcement responsibility, “threatens the democratic foundations that all of our rights and protections are built on”
“To what degree are those views going to affect your professional responsibilities,” he asked. “Are you going to treat everybody fairly? Are you going to pay attention to the courts, or other elected officials? Are you gonna not investigate people who can be ideologically aligned with you, and spend more attention, trying to go after people who you might be ideologically opposed?”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, and former NYPD officer, who has written police training curriculums, said that “Mack’s history with respect to the Oath Keepers or the (Bundy) conflict (in Nevada) make it an issue of significant public concern for the citizens of your county that a sheriff would be aligned with this subculture.”
Levin, a criminologist and civil rights attorney, also noted that Florida leading the nation in Capitol Riot arrests— at least 62 alleged participants from the Sunshine Statehave been charged so far — is an indication that the influence of the CSPOA among law enforcement officials and the message that that sends to extremists is real.
“The bottom line is no serious professional sheriff would have any kind of association with Richard Mack and his discredited, historical and legal theories,” Levin said, calling his ideology an “insurrectionist doctrine.”
Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon is a watchdog reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter: @alemzs.