This story was originally published by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.
In 2021, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association submitted a proposal to Arizona’s top law enforcement-certifying agency to train officers in “American ideals and the principles of Liberty upon which the USA was founded.”
But the seemingly innocuous curriculum objective obscured the anti-government views of the so-called “constitutional sheriff” group, which has an ideology based on false legal theories about the supreme power of the county sheriff and other anti-democratic principles that domestic extremism experts warn could upend the balance of government power in communities across the U.S.
The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board rejected CSPOA’s request, preventing such training from reaching Arizona law enforcement officers in an official capacity. Soon, however, that safeguard will no longer exist: A rule change set to take effect in December will lower the barrier for extremist organizations to access law enforcement personnel by taking continuing-education decisions out of the board’s hands and placing them in those of individual law enforcement agency leaders across Arizona.
CSPOA, which has been at the forefront of nationwide efforts to redefine what it means to be a sheriff in modern America, experienced unprecedented success in expanding its programming into law enforcement training in Montana and Texas in 2021. Experts contend such training sessions use taxpayer money to move sheriffs and other peace officers along a path of radicalization by indoctrinating them into the ideologies of the constitutional sheriff movement, including recent efforts to expand sheriffs’ roles into election administration.
“I would say they’re not being ‘trained’ on anything. They’re being exposed to extremist ideology,” said Mark Pitcavage, an Anti-Defamation League senior research fellow who has tracked CSPOA since it was founded. “The real risk is that it can start people going down the rabbit hole of extremism.”
The Arizona change is particularly significant for sheriffs, who, unlike appointed police chiefs, hold elected positions and generally face less oversight. It means law enforcement leaders such as Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who has known ties to the CSPOA and is the frontman for Protect America Now, another Arizona-based “constitutional sheriff” organization, will make the final decision on the type of training his deputies receive.
Lamb is one of eight Arizona sheriffs—out of 15 in the state—who have aligned themselves at least partially with the primary ideologies of the constitutional sheriff movement, a months-long investigation by the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting recently found. It’s a movement built not only on the idea that a sheriffs’ power supersedes that of the president and the U.S. Supreme Court, experts explain, but also that they have a duty to nullify laws they interpret as unconstitutional.
“The ability to recruit law enforcement is exponentially higher if you can get in front of them and offer them credit for the courses you’re teaching,” warned Rachel Goldwasser, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center. This access, she said, could lead to a growing number of law enforcement officers being exposed to training based on a radicalized ideology.
“There’s just so many levels of damage,” Goldwasser said.
Arizona rule change intended to address varying agency needs
The change to Arizona’s continuing education training rules, approved by the Arizona Governor’s Regulatory Review Council, allows law enforcement agency heads to approve courses because of the varying needs of agencies, explained AZPOST Executive Director Matthew Giordano, who proposed the shift.
What would best benefit Phoenix Police Department officers, for example, might be of little use to Cochise County Sheriff deputies working in a more rural border county. As Chandler Police Department Advanced Training Unit Sgt. Daniel Greene put it: “There’s zero reason for me to learn how to police on horseback, but that could be very relevant in other parts of the state.”
The change, one of several made this year, provides flexibility to smaller agencies with limited resources for internal training by allowing outside vendors to offer suitable alternatives, which Greene said should be thoroughly vetted. Other changes simplify education requirements, eliminating the distinction between continuing training and proficiency training, and require all peace officers, regardless of rank, to complete 12 hours of training each year starting next year.
“Now that you are fully responsible for the curriculum being taught, not doing your homework would be negligent,” Greene said. “In the world of training, negligence has a dollar value attached to it. That dollar value is usually the result of a lawsuit.”
Similar rule changes in Texas and Montana allowed CSPOA to get its courses greenlit there. While state-approved training is only one of several ways the group attempts to indoctrinate sheriffs and citizens, according to the Anti-Defamation League’s Pitcavage, it is particularly concerning because of the perceived legitimacy it provides to CSPOA.
“Under the new system, if a chief or sheriff wanted to bring that group in to teach or teach those topics, that’s up to them,” Giordano said of CSPOA. “They would ultimately have to defend their decision on why they allowed that instructor to come in and teach their folks.”
“As far as accountability for the topics they’re teaching, that would really be between them and their employer,” he said. In the case of sheriffs, accountability would mostly fall to voters.
Constitutional sheriff training gains nationwide traction
CSPOA founder Richard Mack said 2021 was a record year for interest, stating that he held 72 events throughout the nation for the general public and law enforcement officers. AZCIR confirmed at least a handful of those were for law enforcement continuing education credits.
Mack told AZCIR he is pleased any time a state approves CSPOA training for its officers, but added he is less concerned about whether or not they get credit. He just wants “sheriffs in the chairs.”
“I honestly believe that if you attend the training, you’ll never look at your job as sheriff the same way,” Mack told AZCIR. “You’ll see that it’s important to defend the people from all enemies, both foreign and domestic.”
Mack didn’t elaborate on who those enemies are, but his background as a former board member with the Oath Keepers, an anti-government militia group, has put him in direct association with a range of domestic extremists, from those with ties to neo-confederate organizations to antisemites—some of whom have presented at his trainings.
It was Mack who led CSPOA trainings in Montana and Texas in 2021. His course, advertised as “constitutional training,” was offered for four credit hours at a cost of $30 to Montana sheriffs, deputies and peace officers in June. Additional training for five credit hours was approved for October and November, according to records obtained by AZCIR. In Texas, Mack held events in February and July.
The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement received a warning ahead of the July training from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), an organization that tracks and counters racism, antisemitism, white supremacy and far-right movements.
The institute was concerned with CSPOA “co-sponsoring a nationwide tour” that included the now-deceased Robert David Steele, “an antisemitic QAnon conspiracist.” They also raised issue with Michael Peroutka, a former member of the neo-confederate, white nationalist group League of the South, speaking at the event, as well as Mack’s dissemination of a “long-discredited idea derived from the violently racist and antisemitic Posse Comitatus,” which claims a sheriff’s power is greater than the that of the U.S. Supreme Court or the president.
“While we support law enforcement officers understanding the U.S. Constitution, we are gravely concerned about law enforcement officers incorporating the dangerous ideas about policing practices espoused by these fundamentally anti-Constitutional, anti-democratic, and bigoted organizations,” wrote IREHR President and Executive Director Devin Burghart.
An email response from the Texas law enforcement commission stated it “places a great deal of trust in, and responsibility on, our contracted training providers.”
Ultimately, a commission representative who attended the CSPOA events in response to IREHR’s concerns determined there was “no discussion or delivered material that would be reason to deny continuing education credit to any licensed attendees.”
The Anti-Defamation League described the events in Montana and Texas as “one of the most successful attempts in recent decades by anti-government extremists to infiltrate law enforcement.”
Anti-government ideology a CSPOA mainstay
Mack drew a crowd of about 100 people to the First Southern Baptist Church in Chino Valley, Arizona, in October when he spoke at a meeting of the Yavapai County Preparedness Team—a local Oath Keepers group that has severed its ties with the national organization. No uniformed law enforcement was in attendance, but domestic extremism experts who have followed Mack’s movement say there are no indications that he significantly changes his lecturers when they are for state-approved law enforcement credits.
His message remains steadfast: The sheriff is a community’s defense against the tyranny of an overreaching government.
At the event in Yavapai County, Mack spoke for about an hour, allowing him to only briefly touch on topics ranging from Second Amendment rights and sheriffs’ duty to ignore laws they deem unconstitutional to espousing debunked allegations of election fraud in 2020.
At larger events with more time, Mack uses panels of sheriffs and other speakers who reinforce the ideology of the movement. In 2019, Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, the chairman of the AZPOST board, was a featured speaker, though he was not part of the CSPOA’s 2020 conference in Virginia. That event saw more than a dozen speakers take the stage, providing more than six hours of “motivational, educational material focusing on real solutions from sheriffs and public officials from across the country,” according to the group’s website.
Though also not part of the 2020 lineup in Virginia, a lecturer often used by Mack is KrisAnne Hall, who describes herself as a constitutional attorney. She has lectured at CSPOA and militia events since at least 2013, sharing her and Mack’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
“Some will say no to nullification. They’ll tell you it’s not in the Constitution. They’ll tell you the Supreme Court says nullification is not lawful,” Hall told a room full of law enforcement officers at a CSPOA event in 2013. “But those who live it say to disallow nullification would be an unconstitutional act of tyranny.”
Hall’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is a “radical assault” on the role of the federal government and civil rights, revisiting the Reconstruction Era, according to Chuck Tanner, a researcher at IREHR. He explained that Hall interprets the Constitution in a way that “guts a federal capacity” to provide civil rights, enforce environmental protections and regulate businesses to ensure minimum levels of safety for employees.
Mack’s trainings have also included self-described constitutional attorney Katherine Henry, who has denounced the concept of case law, Michigan constitutional sheriff and election denier Dar Leaf, and Pastor David Whitney, who declared at a Tea Party rally in 2010 that citizens had a “the God-given right to secede.”
Mack, Hall and others who are aligned with the movement are not constitutionalist in the sense of having a sound legal approach to the U.S. Constitution, said Tanner. “They’re constitutionalist in the sense that that’s how they construct their nationalism.”
Part of why CSPOA trainings are “so insidious” is because they expose law enforcement to a variety of dangerous and extremist perspectives at the events, Burghart explained. “It creates that bond that’s even harder to separate.”
Burghart said he was concerned that the rule change in Arizona will make it “a lot harder to keep an eye on where far-right sheriff groups are trying to infiltrate the state.”
“If they decide that they’ve got a critical enough mass in a place like Arizona,” Burghart explained, ”they can essentially just organize them offline without having to publicize them. Then we will have a different challenge on our hands.”