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Howard Center investigation examines increasing influence of 'constitutional sheriffs' group

Investigation collaboration between Cronkite School center, the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting

Photo of man in a cowboy hat giving a speech.

The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association has been active in at least 30 states, hosting trainings, rallies, speeches and meetings. Photo courtesy Howard Center of Investigative Journalism

August 21, 2023

For the past several years, a so-called “constitutional sheriffs” group has been quietly expanding its influence and impact across the U.S. by training law enforcement officers that sheriffs are the ultimate authority in their county and may refuse to enforce any state or federal law they deem unjust or unconstitutional.

Experts warn that such training undermines democratic processes and contributes to what one labeled a “broader insurrectionist ideology” that has become more prevalent since the 2020 presidential election. 

The extent of the growth by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association — founded by former Arizona (Graham County) Sheriff Richard Mack — has been unclear until today’s release of “In the Sheriff We Trust.” 

The seven-month collaboration between the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting shows that the sheriff’s group has been active in at least 30 states, hosting trainings, rallies, speeches and meetings.

In at least 13 of those states, the investigation found, the constitutional sheriffs group has conducted formal training seminars for law enforcement officers. And in six of those states, the training was approved for officers’ official continuing education credits. 

Reporters also identified more than a dozen U.S. counties, all with some connection to the constitutional sheriffs group, that have considered becoming “constitutional counties” since 2021. At least two went on to become official “CSPOA Constitutional Counties,” which includes a $2,500 fee paid directly to the sheriffs group. 

The multipart investigation was based on a treasure trove of documents. Reporters submitted public records requests to nearly every state in the nation along with dozens of sheriffs’ offices, reviewed thousands of pages of emails and other correspondence, scoured financial records and corporate filings, and spoke with dozens of experts, community members, sheriffs and other public officials.

The result is a first-of-its-kind look at the constitutional sheriffs movement nationwide, which extremism experts say should worry all Americans.

“Just because it’s not as overt in their subversion of the democratic system, just because it’s quieter about how it does it and what it’s calling for, doesn’t make the ideas any less dangerous,” said Jon Lewis, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism.

The multimedia investigation, which also includes an interactive map and online documentary, was overseen by Maud Beelman, the Howard Center’s founding executive editor; Lauren Mucciolo, the center’s executive producer; and Brandon Quester, the founder and executive director of AZCIR, an award-winning newsroom known for its deep reporting on important public policy issues in Arizona and the Southwest.  

“It was a privilege to work with such talented editors, mentors and reporters on this project,” said TJ L’Heureux, one of the student reporters who earned their master’s degree in investigative journalism with this project. “I am proud of the exhaustive work we did; I’ve grown exponentially as a journalist from this experience.”

The investigation was a unique collaboration between students and recent graduates of the Cronkite School and Howard Center capstone. Six current students, including four from the Master of Investigative Journalism program, researched and reported on the project. They were joined by three recent graduates of the Cronkite School and the Howard Center: two reporters from the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, who are also Roy W. Howard Fellows, and a third Howard Center alumnus and former Roy W. Howard Fellow with OpenSecrets. 

The award-winning Howard Center at Cronkite has trained the next generation of investigative reporters since its opening in 2019. It and another Howard Center at the University of Maryland operate under grants from the Scripps Howard Fund to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism, in honor of the legacy of Roy W. Howard, former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.

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