Had Badge, Will Travel
Mother Jones|January/February 2022
An ex-sheriff slings bogus constitutional lessons at cops—with your state’s seal of approval.
By Stephanie Mencimer, Illustration by Noma Bar

ON A GLORIOUS SATURDAY in October, about 75 people gather inside an airy insulation installer’s warehouse on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, ready for a daylong lesson in resisting tyranny. The mostly white, middle-aged crowd sports Trump 2024 hats and shirts extolling the Second Amendment—but no masks.

As attendees grab donuts and coffee, the event’s headliner, Richard Mack, founder of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), genially chats with them and hawks his self-published books, including The County Sheriff: America’s Last Hope. Tall and tan at almost 69, Mack has the look of an aging game show host and carries himself with the self-assurance of a minor celebrity. He has deep, decades-long ties to militia and extremist groups. He even wrote the foreword to a book by his friend Randy Weaver, the white separatist whose wife and son were shot by federal agents during an 11-day 1992 standoff at Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

Mack’s organization is made up of hundreds of elected sheriffs and supporters who promote the idea that these county officials have the right to refuse to enforce laws they deem unconstitutional—such as most federal gun laws—and to call up citizen militias to help keep the peace. In their jurisdictions, Mack believes sheriffs supersede the president of the United States.

The idea has earned him a loyal following, particularly with gun rights zealots and Western Sagebrush Rebellion types who oppose federal control of public lands. He’s been a familiar face on the extremist circuit since the mid- 1990s, when he refused, as the elected sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, to run federally mandated background checks on gun purchasers. While he eventually won a resulting US Supreme Court case, he lost reelection along the way and hasn’t worked in law enforcement since. (“You know how much this cost me?” he asked me, offering up annotated copies of the decision. “$400,000! But you can have three for $5.”)

His particular mix of far-right politics and constitutionalist rhetoric found a home in 2011, when a Texas-based patriot group hired him to start an organization that would recruit law enforcement into its movement. Since then, Mack claims CSPOA has received approval in almost a dozen states, including Virginia, Montana, and South Carolina, to offer training seminars that law enforcement officers need to stay on the job.

In 2021, Texas became the biggest state to do so. “He’s had more success in bringing anti-government ideas to law enforcement than anyone else,” says Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher at the Anti-Defamation League and the author of a report on CSPOA. States like Texas, Pitcavage says, “have officially approved what is essentially anti-government propaganda being delivered to law enforcement.”

That embrace comes despite steady warnings, from both independent watchdogs and the FBI, that far-right extremists want to infiltrate law enforcement to pursue their ideological goals. The peril became apparent on January 6, 2021; at least 30 current or former law enforcement officers face charges or investigations related to the Capitol attack. Members of CSPOA were active in promoting “stop the steal” conspiracies ahead of the riot; one, Sheriff Dar Leaf of Michigan’s Barry County, allegedly sought the help of Trump attorney Lin Wood’s legal team in a scheme to issue warrants for allegedly compromised voting machines. Others have made headlines for refusing to enforce mask mandates.

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