Former Long Beach Police Chief Robert Luna, left, debates Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva ahead of the Nov. 8 general election for county sheriff on Wednesday,Sept. 21, 2022, in Los Angeles
Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times via AP, Pool
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Andy Taylor: Andy and Barney were lawmen, bravest you ever did see.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Oh, yes. That's America's most beloved sheriff, Andy Taylor, played, of course, by Andy Griffith.
Andy Taylor: Warned every crook in the record book to stay out of Mayberry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The reality of sheriffs in the US is not as rosy as Mayberry. A recently published study of over 500 sheriffs nationwide revealed that the majority are far more politically conservative than Americans as a whole. That can matter. Depending on where you live, sheriffs might run the jails, conduct evictions, and enforce arrests on everything from gun laws to immigration to election fraud.
Joining me now is Mirya Holman, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. She's co-author of a recent study on sheriffs' political views published by the Marshall Project. Mirya, thanks for being here.
Mirya Holman: It's an absolute delight. Nice to talk to you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help us understand the differences between the powers and the responsibilities of a local police department and the sheriff.
Mirya Holman: Most sheriffs are elected, whereas most police chiefs in the United States are appointed usually by a city council or a mayor or a city manager. Sheriffs provide law enforcement services broadly for a county, whereas police chiefs, most of the time, their authority is limited to a particular city.
If you ask sheriffs, they say one of the things that's really important about the office is that they have this elected component which makes them, according to sheriffs, directly accountable to their voters.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That question of if you ask a sheriff is precisely what you all did. One of the findings of your study that was pretty stunning, I think, is that there are sheriffs who believe their powers supersede that of the governor, potentially even of the president. Can you help me to understand the origins of that belief?
Mirya Holman: Yes. There's a pretty substantial group of sheriffs in our study that endorsed this belief. There's also a group of sheriffs that endorse the belief that they have this responsibility. These are their terms that they use to interpose between unfair or overreaching policies by the state or federal government and to protect their residents in their county from this overreach.
These attitudes are consistent with a movement that calls itself the Constitutional Sheriffs Movement. These sheriffs endorse a belief that sheriffs are really powerful because of this direct election. They're these chief law enforcement officers. They often talk about themselves as constitutional officers because sheriffs appear in some state constitutions. They don't, though, appear anywhere in the US Constitution, just to be clear.
This belief emerged very slowly out of a series of very right-wing efforts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, particularly in the American West. Over time, the militia movements in the American West really picked up the idea that sheriffs had this unique power, and then over the last decade or so, there's been an organization, the Constitutional Peace Officers and Sheriffs Organization that has really pushed this idea and recruited sheriffs into this belief that they have this unique power and ability.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about what implications this might have relative to, for example, election law.
Mirya Holman: This is one of the reasons that my co-author and I-- I do all this research with Emily Farris, who's an associate professor at Texas Christian University. This is why we started studying sheriffs, as we were really interested in, from a political science perspective, understanding the consequences of a single office having both this ability to make policy and the ability to enforce policy because most elected officials don't have both of those responsibilities contained in one office.
We really started to think about this within the frame of immigration policy and trying to understand if sheriffs who have anti-immigrant views then create and enforce policy in anti-immigrant ways. The answer is yes, that there is a correlation between those two things.
Now we're seeing that there's this fairly substantial group of sheriffs who are endorsing beliefs around election fraud or engaging in election monitoring. Again, there's this connection between that sheriff can have these particular views, and then can just go and send deputies to go monitor election sites, for example, or could go and arrest people that are doing anything that he perceives as being illegal. I refer to sheriffs as men because almost all of them are men. 98% of sheriffs are men.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Well, there is a local candidate for sheriff in Massachusetts, Donna Buckley. I want to take a quick listen to Ms. Buckley at a recent campaign event.
Donna Buckley: Are we ready to make sure that our sheriff's office does its core mission, that it does correction, rehabilitation, and treatment of inmates? Yes.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Correction, but also rehabilitation and treatment. For all that we've been talking about about the constitutional sheriffs movement, is there also a progressive sheriffs movement?
Mirya Holman: There are some places where we've seen progressive candidates run and in some places win as sheriff. Where I am in New Orleans, where you're very familiar with this location, Melissa, we have had a successful progressive challenger, Susan Hudson, run for sheriff with a lot of very similar campaign promises, moving the jail away from a place of punishment to a place of rehabilitation.
I'm not actually sure that there is such a thing as a progressive jail. I think that we can have reforms to incarceration in the United States, but I'm not sure that the idea of being a jailer is something that's really compatible with progressive values. I've been very interested to see how these progressive candidates try to think about what that policy would look like and then whether or not they're successful in implementing those policies. So far, Sheriff Hudson has hit a lot of roadblocks in New Orleans, so I'm eagerly watching to see what she's capable of.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Mirya Holman is Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Mirya Holman: Thank you, Melissa. I really appreciate it.
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