More than a dozen candidates campaigning to be top law enforcement officials in counties across Colorado are running on a unique platform: Not enforcing the law.
These candidates fit the profile of a loose movement sometimes referred to as “constitutional sheriffs” whose members promise to act as a bulwark against government overreach and laws passed by state legislatures that they deem illegal.
At the top of their list in Colorado is the “red flag” law that gives judges the ability to order the temporary seizure of guns from people considered a threat to themselves or others.
Some also reject the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election and coronavirus precautions, issues that have become polarizing litmus tests dividing the far-right and more mainstream conservatives.
“No boss, no governor, no socialist agenda will take away my focus to fight for and protect our constitution,” John Anderson, a sheriff candidate in Douglas County, says on his campaign website.
Experts say the rhetoric has emerged among local officials as political divisions have cleaved the country in the past decade, with fights over mask and vaccine requirements and gun-safety proposals pulling once-fringe views more into the mainstream. Some of the ideas have roots in far-right extremist movements while others may reflect a loose dissatisfaction with political leadership or campaign-season pandering, experts said.
A growing rural-urban divide may also feed into the feeling that sheriffs in sparsely populated counties must protect their residents from policies passed in big cities. But the ideology is too widespread to be based solely on that, said Mirya Holman, a Tulane University political science professor who has researched sheriffs. “We see these attitudes amongst suburban sheriffs, even amongst some urban sheriffs.”
In Douglas County, for example, Anderson’s campaign website says “freedom of speech and religion, medical freedoms, protection against unlawful search and seizure, guarantee of due process, states’ rights” have all been “attacked in some way over the past several years.”
“Who do you trust will stand up against tyranny?” the website asks.
Holly Kluth, a former Douglas County undersheriff who is campaigning against Anderson, has a lengthy description of her philosophy on being a “constitutional sheriff” posted on her campaign website. It takes aim at the state’s red flag gun law.
“We cannot allow violations such as this to be acceptable,” it says.
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas is a third Republican candidate for sheriff. She said in an interview that some COVID-19 precautions amounted to government overreach during the pandemic. She made the motion last summer to withdraw the county from the regional Tri-County Health Department over complaints about the health orders.
But to “say that the sheriff has ultimate power over everything” is a bridge too far, she said.
“It’s just not correct,” she said. “There is separation of powers for a reason.”
Candidates running to be sheriff of El Paso County, which includes Colorado Springs, have been similarly divided on when and whether they will enforce all laws.
Sheriff candidate Todd Watkins, who served in the U.S. Border Patrol for 24 years, opposes “arbitrary magazine capacity restrictions, so-called ‘assault weapons’ bans” and other gun restrictions passed by state lawmakers, according to an endorsement from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ political action committee.
Greg Maxwell, director of security for the Broadmoor Hotel, says if he is elected sheriff he “will make sure everyone’s constitutional rights are never violated” but “will not enforce mandates, which are not laws, such as masks and vaccine mandates.”
El Paso County Undersheriff Joe Roybal, the third Republican candidate for sheriff, says his views don’t differ much from his opponents. He will prioritize defending the Second Amendment and combating “assaults on our constitutional rights,” according to his campaign materials and social media accounts.
But he characterized the constitutional sheriff branding as a “catchphrase.”
“They’re doing that simply to catch the attention of people and, in my opinion, confuse them,” said Roybal, a 26-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who is seen as the frontrunner in the race.
There needs to be some kind of cooperation between local, state and federal officials, he said. “The folks who have endorsed me, they understand that it’s not as simple as saying ‘I’m a constitutional sheriff and if it’s not constitutional, don’t enforce it.’”
The strong anti-government sentiments and opposition to gun restrictions and coronavirus precautions have alarmed some experts in law enforcement and radicalism, who say it reflects growing unrest and a strain of right-wing extremism that has permeated law enforcement offices across the country.
Other local offices, from county clerks to municipal boards that once flew under the radar, have also become hyperpartisan in recent years. A woman vying to be El Paso County coroner is running as a “freedom doctor.” Once-sleepy school board races have become caustic battlegrounds.
The rise of Trumpism may have prompted some sheriffs and politicians to “read the way the political winds seem to be blowing,” and give lip service to ideas animating the Trumpist base, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. That might be due to genuine affinity with the positions or a calculation that it would be helpful politically.
The fights often pit a more militant, conspiratorial wing against traditional Republicans, reflecting a fight over the future direction of the GOP, he said.
But sheriffs’ races differ from other political campaigns, given the unique powers of the office, some experts said.
It’s one of the only elected law enforcement positions, said Holman, the Tulane political science professor. Sheriffs wield wide discretion and have broad authority.
“They have the ability to arrest people or not arrest people. They have the ability to really damage somebody’s life if they so choose,” Holman said. There are “few checks on what sheriffs do.”
“In many ways, (it’s) a very dangerous office to have somebody that is unwilling to cooperate with basic functions,” she said.
Refusing to enforce gun-related laws is one area where the “constitutional sheriff” ideology can have a tangible impact on constituents’ lives, said Robert Tsai, a Boston University law professor who has researched constitutional sheriffs.
“If they refuse to go and pick somebody up because of a violation of gun laws, they refuse to go disarm somebody, refuse to respond to someone who is armed. That’s really where the rubber meets the road,” Tsai said.
Sheriffs in the past have clashed with other branches of government, from refusing to help enforce federal immigration laws, to spurring anti-immigrant sentiment in defiance of a court order, as in the case of Joe Arpaio, the 24-year sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who became nationally known for his hard line against immigrants living in the U.S. without permission.
Several sheriff candidates this year have promoted partisan causes in their campaigns, such as galvanizing residents to vote out judges they consider soft on crime or questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election.
In Mesa County, for example, sheriff candidate Bob Dalley says he will “reestablish voter integrity” and “uphold the constitution as written” on his campaign website.
Asked about “major problems during the 2020 election,” including voter fraud and ballot dumping, Dalley said he was disappointed more wasn’t done to “find out what went on last time.”
“If anything is brought to me as sheriff then absolutely we’re going to investigate it just like any other crime,” said Dalley, who has worked for the Palisade police and is now chief marshal for the town of De Beque. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Wayne Bryant, a write-in candidate in Archuleta County, where two Republicans are already on the primary ballot for sheriff, has campaigned on claims of election fraud.
“Vote out using the Dominion (Voting) machines,” he said in one Facebook post, referencing a company that’s been at the center of conspiracies pushed by those who allege the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. Dominion has filed defamation lawsuits and the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has said there’s no indication software vulnerabilities in the voting equipment were used to alter election results.
On his campaign website, Bryant has called for deputizing all citizens in the county of 13,500 residents and called on them to be poll watchers. He also said mail-in balloting systems are “totally corrupt.” He did not respond to a request for comment.
Watkins, the El Paso County sheriff candidate, has expressed support for state Rep. Ron Hanks and Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, two of the loudest voices in Colorado claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen. Hanks is running for U.S. Senate. Peters, who is a candidate for Secretary of State, has been indicted on 10 charges related to a security breach of Mesa County’s election system in 2021.
Watkins says he would work with county clerks to look into allegations of election fraud. If there’s reasonable suspicion that a crime occurred, it’s law enforcement’s job to investigate, he said.
“Doesn’t mean that anybody is guilty,” he said. “You follow evidence to where it leads and if it leads you to ‘nothing happened here,’ then guess what? Nothing happened here.”
Resistance to enforcing the red flag gun law passed by Colorado lawmakers in 2019 is another common campaign plank. The law has proved broadly unpopular outside the state’s urban areas.
Around half the state’s counties declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries where the 2019 red flag law won’t be enforced. GOP lawmakers and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners have unsuccessfully tried to overturn the law in court.
Roybal, the El Paso County frontrunner, believes the red flag law is an overreach, and a violation of the Fourth Amendment, barring illegal search and seizure. He would not enforce the red flag law, saying he would only seize weapons if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed. The county sheriff has never acted on the law. Mental health is the bigger issue, he said.
Candidates running on constitutional-sheriff rhetoric, Roybal said, are “making a big deal out of something we don’t do.”
Sheriffs have discretion in how they choose to enforce the red flag gun law in Colorado, conservative commentator and former Arapahoe district attorney George Brauchler said. But the country’s governance system is not set up to allow elected officials to independently decide what isn’t and is unconstitutional, he said.
“I know some of these people personally and professionally, and I’m a big fan,” Brauchler said of sheriffs who won’t enforce the red flag law. “But to simply say as a blanket statement ‘I will never ever apply it’ seems to me to run afoul of this idea that there is a rule of law.”
The idea of constitutional sheriffs is associated with the constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which believes that in their jurisdiction, sheriffs have “constitutional authority to check and balance all levels of government” up to the president. Founded by former Graham County, Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, the group has been called extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center. A banner across its website calls for an “Election Fraud Investigation.”
Mack’s association and its message have gained followers during the past decade.
After President Barack Obama proposed a raft of gun restrictions in the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, at least 31 Colorado sheriffs and the state sheriff association signed statements opposing gun control that were collected by the association.
In 2021, more sheriffs than not said they believe their authority supersedes federal or state governments in their county, a central belief of the association, according to research from Holman and Emily Farris, a political scientist at Texas Christian University.
Sam Bushman, vice president of operations for the constitutional sheriffs group, objected to the characterization of the association as extremist or controversial, saying it was a “peaceful training association” and that sheriffs and public officials swear to uphold the Constitution.
“Therefore, everyone should be constitutional,” Bushman said. He blamed the media for perverting the term “constitutional” – “say unconstitutional then they think you’re a whacked out militia crazy” – and said the assertion that the group believes “sheriffs can do whatever they want to” is “bogus.”
He also said sheriffs have a duty to reject red flag gun laws, asking: “If there’s a law that conflicts with the supreme law of our land” – the U.S. Constitution – “which law takes precedent?”
“So the DA, if he says, ‘Oh, respect for the rule of law.’ That’s right. What rule of law are we talking about?’ he asked.
Bushman said the group doesn’t disclose its membership, but said the association is made up of “ordinary Americans,” not only sheriffs.
Watkins, the El Paso County candidate and former Border Patrol agent, is part of the association. He doesn’t consider it extreme. “At what point did the Constitution and the founding principles in this country become extremist ideology?”
After Watkins left the Border Patrol and contemplated his next career move, he said he felt more and more that the sheriff was the “last line defending your rights” – the office with the “responsibility to say ‘No, we’re not going to do that which is contrary” to the Constitution.
“It shouldn’t have to be. Our elected officials – whether it’s executive branch or legislative branch – should abide by the Constitution and stay within the limitations of power that were assigned to them,” he said.
He believes in the “original intent” of the U.S. Constitution and that all government officials – from the president to a dogcatcher – should be primarily concerned with upholding it, he said.
“We’ve gotten it wrong in this country a number of times. What about Jim Crow? Segregation? Would you have arrested Rosa Parks? These were laws that never should have been enforced. Slave laws – would you have enforced those?” he said. “There are lots of instances where we got it wrong, where – I should say – our Legislature got it wrong. The Constitution is supposed to provide those checks,” through the separation of powers.
Most Colorado candidates who labeled themselves constitutional sheriffs in campaign materials said they are not affiliated with the organization.
Maxwell, Watkins’ opponent in El Paso County, said he keeps up with the constitutional sheriffs group for the same reasons he reads newspapers he doesn’t agree with ideologically.
“I will say that I do not agree with any type of rhetoric that usurps our model of our three branches of government. Protecting everyone’s constitutional rights is what resonates with me, not any particular group,” he said, in written responses.
Anderson, the Douglas County candidate who served 40 years with Castle Rock’s police department, said he doesn’t “need somebody telling me what I can do.”
“I just don’t feel comfortable getting involved in groups. I’ve heard they are extremists and I don’t know if they are or not, I couldn’t tell you,” he said. “I don’t need to be in a wolf pack. I can just be myself because I believe what I believe.”
Anderson’s opponent, Kluth, has labeled herself a “constitutional sheriff” but said the term is used “very broadly.”
“I believe that constitutional policing, in this day and age, my own version of it, is protecting the citizens and allowing them to exercise their constitutional rights, which includes freedom of speech, freedom to gather, freedom to worship, the guarantee of due process, guarantee of Second Amendment rights,” she said.
Kluth said she’d seen a slow creep toward government overreach that became more pronounced during the pandemic – when actions were taken “that really did impinge on our constitutional rights.” She cited limits on gathering in houses or at indoor church services as examples and, more recently, a sense that parents were not being able to exercise their right to speech before school boards.
While familiar with Mack’s association, Kluth said her views were driven by observing “things happening that I was very concerned about” during the pandemic. To demonstrate her disagreement with the organization, she said Mack thinks the Reagan-era “War on Drugs” – which set minimum prison sentences for drug offenses that disproportionately imprisoned Black people – was a failure, while she believes it made a difference.
That’s part of what Bushman says too.
He said different levels of government have checks and balances – the federal and state government balancing locals and vice versa – and sheriffs, local prosecutors and lawmakers oversee each other in counties.
“We are not partisan. We don’t believe the sheriff is a king or a god by any stretch of the imagination. We do believe the sheriff has tremendous authority. Most sheriffs are not living up to their responsibility or authority,” Bushman said.
“If you put ‘constitutional sheriff’ in the proper context,” he said, “I think most sheriffs would agree.”