Sheriffs Gone Wild

Brian Platt

Last week, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney stared at his keyboard and boldly told his Facebook followers that he would not enforce any Covid 19 related stay at home order. He went on, “I believe that preventing business owners to (sic) operate their businesses and provide for their families intrudes on our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He vowed that he would “always put your constitutional rights above politics or popular opinion.” Heroism had called and Fortney was accepting the charges.

There are two things that we should get out of the way up front. Last week when Fortney took his bold stand for freedom, Covid 19 related deaths in the United States had gone from equal with Italy to double Italy’s death count in five days. As of writing, there have been 64,000 known Covid 19 related deaths in the US – about 13 times as many as in China for those keeping track at home – and its daily death rate is three times higher than the UK, the next highest country on record.

Another thing to keep in mind is that cops are stupid. They are some of the dumbest people our very dumb society produces. And Sheriffs are the dumbest of the bunch. This is what David Postman, Gov. Inslee’s chief of staff, was getting at when he responded to Fortney, “People should not be looking to the sheriff’s Facebook page either for constitutional analysis or health advice.”

Whether it is the image of Bull Connor during the Civil Rights Movement or the Lynwood Vikings scandal in the LA county sheriff’s office in the 1990s, the reputation for corruption, stupidity, and cruelty amongst those that hold the position of sheriff is long and deeply engrained in the American psyche. When a cop is a villain in a movie, what kind of cop are they?

Fortney fits into this mold. In 2019 he ran on the motto, “Take the handcuffs off the police and put them on the criminals where they belong.” Upon being elected, Fortney re-hired sheriff’s deputy Art Wallin. In 2008, Wallin had tried to pull over Nikolas Peters for “erratic driving.” When Peters did not pull over, Wallin engaged him in a high-speed chase through Lynnwood – in direct violation of department policy – ramming his car several times. During the chase Wallin said over the radio that he “had to take this guy out.”

After Peters pulled over, Wallin shot the man twice from three feet away, killing him. Peters’ girlfriend said they both had their hands up and Peters wasn’t armed. According to Wallin, his “spidey sense” said otherwise. No one believes Wallin, including the former Snohomish sheriff who fired him. Fortney, who was involved in the chase and had been reprimanded for allowing it to happen, rehired Wallin within two weeks of assuming office.

One week after rehiring Wallin, Fortney rehired two more sheriff’s deputies who had been fired by the previous administration. These deputies had engaged in the warrantless search of a car and then lied on their report to cover it up. “I know what this looks like,” Fortney told reporters, “Adam’s coming in and he’s reinstating all his friends.” Fortney had previously supervised both deputies and even got a $500 campaign donation from one of them. It was what it looked like.

Now all of this is a long way around saying that Sheriff Fortney was a bad guy before his dumb quarantine comments. And I don’t mean bad in the cool movie way, but bad in that deep-down way. He is a bad person. The kind of person who sees it as his life’s mission to make the world a worse place.

Enter the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA). Founded in 2011 by Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, the CSPOA is a rightwing network of former and current law enforcement officers that counts hundreds of sheriffs amongst its members. Their goal is to “take America back, Sheriff by Sheriff, County by County, State by State.” They believe, conveniently, that the sheriff is the supreme political office in the United States and that only they can stop the effort to “fundamentally change America into another socialistic regime.” As Mack told Alex Jones in 2009, “There is no question your sheriff has the responsibility to protect you from tyranny and international bankers.”

Now the CSPOA did not come out of nowhere. Prior to forming the CSPOA, Mack had been a prominent member of the Oath Keepers – an organization of cops, ex-military, and LARPers who proclaim to be protecting us all from the New World Order, but mainly just engage in anti-Semitic rants and complain about black people. They had a brief moment in the spotlight in 2014 when they went to Ferguson, Missouri to protect the police from black protesters. The venn diagram of CSPOA members and Oath Keepers is basically a circle with grifters bouncing between both group’s leadership.

The intellectual roots of the CSPOA go back to the little-known Posse Comitatus movement of the 1970s. Started by Henry Lamont Beach in Portland in 1969, the Posse Comitatus sought to save the white race from Jews and communists who were using the Federal Reserve to enslave them. It was standard John Birch Society bullshit with a lot of guns thrown in for flair. Beach himself had been a member of the Silver Shirts in the 1930s, an American-Nazi friendship society with a penchant for corduroy trousers and leggings.

While little known, the Posse Comitatus movement was the springboard for the modern white nationalist movement. Most of the leadership of the 1990s militia boom had been members and their dum-dum theories regarding admiralty law and other stupid “gotchas” became the basis of the Sovereign Citizen Movement. Most important for our story, however, was their declaration that “The County Sheriff is the only legal law enforcement officer in the United States.”

“Modern-day Posse adherents, a group of ultra-right-wingers distinguished by their curious zeal for amateur lawyering and Survivalism,” writes historian of the far right James Coates, “treat as a matter of religious faith… that no citizen is bound to obey any authority higher than that of the county sheriff.” That the sheriff is the instrument by which a reactionary order can be instituted in the United States is at the heart of the CSPOA.

While this whole bizarro world politics may seem odd to many, it is growing in popularity among law enforcement. A 2016 “exclusive” from Law Officer Magazine described these “sagebrush sheriffs” as “the last line of defense” against the “liberal policies of the federal government” and the anti-gun “rhetoric from the left.” They go on to state that sheriffs can “assume the authority to nullify the fed if they are trying to implement unconstitutional law.”

And this brings us back to our square-headed dummy in Snohomish. Is he a member of the CSPOA? I don’t know for sure – their membership rolls are kept secret and he isn’t telling – but the way he talks and the words he spews onto Facebook are at the very least heavily influenced by the CSPOA and its Posse Comitatus roots. What does this mean? It means that some of the dumbest people on the planet are extremely heavily armed and believe that God has made them the final political and judicial authority in the country. What could go wrong?

Sheriff is an oddball among modern law enforcement. In the US, the office is a holdover from the English common law tradition. In England it is a holdover from feudal traditions. In 1349, the capitalist class in embryo used the sheriff to enforce the maximum wage (a limit on what wage workers could be paid) and the legislated extension of the working day. As capitalism developed, they tasked the sheriff with branding workers who sat idle for more than three days and executing beggars over the age of 18.

As capitalism came into its own, the capitalist class built professional police forces that were better positioned to protect their interests. And yet the sheriff remained, a relic of a bygone time. Today, in the US, their main function is running the county jails which house a third of all inmates. This could be done by anyone else. Every aspect of their job can be done by anyone else.

Police abolition can be a big idea that is hard for people to wrap their heads around, but getting rid of the sheriff’s office should not be as difficult. It can be a stepping stone for discussing a greater project of de-policing. Sheriff is a pointless position filled with absolute morons who believe the dumbest shit imaginable. Instead of moving to recall Adam Fortney, why not call to get rid of the Snohomish County sheriff altogether? There is no reason to be bound to this old feudal tradition, let’s cut the strings.