Two candidates in the race to become El Paso County’s next top law enforcement official are billing themselves as “constitutional sheriffs” who would protect residents’ constitutional rights and defend their civil liberties if elected.
But critics say the platform is an extremist anti-government movement that diverts focus from policy and leaves counties open to risk under such a sheriff. Some see the campaigns focused on constitutionality as a distraction from policy issues that the next sheriff will need to address, such as recruitment and retention.
Republican candidates Todd Watkins, an Army veteran and former U.S. Border Patrol agent, and Greg Maxwell, The Broadmoor’s director of security, have said if elected they will not enforce what they call unconstitutional laws or mandates. That includes COVID-19-related mask or vaccine mandates and Colorado’s “red-flag” law that allows family members and law enforcement officials to petition the court to confiscate guns from people considered a risk to themselves or others.
The constitutional sheriff movement, specifically the Arizona-based Constitutional Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association founded by former Sheriff Richard Mack, “is a small anti-government extremist movement” that promotes the idea that a county sheriff can stop the enforcement of federal or state laws, regulations or court orders because they are elected, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
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The movement started around gun control and expanded to mask mandates, vaccinations and lockdowns. In February, Mack made a live video appearance in Colorado Springs to speak on the movement.
Several Republican sheriffs candidates have gravitated toward the concept.
Watkins has taken a hard-line approach to the idea, drawing the support of El Paso County Republican Party Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins and a nonprofit called Faith Education Commerce United that is closely aligned with her. Candidates associated with the group are proposing major reforms, such as a return to hand-counting ballots and “untangling” local law enforcement agencies from what they say is federal overreach.
“I want to be the people’s sheriff,” Watkins said during a February town hall event, where he appeared beside other favored GOP candidates. No other county sheriff’s candidates were present. “I’m going to protect your rights and I’m going to ensure that the Sheriff’s Office stays a local police agency, and it’s not encumbered or entangled by larger echelons of government. … Federal government is not in the business of protecting your rights. Certainly not anymore.”
Watkins did not return The Gazette’s request for an interview for this story.
Maxwell said in an email to The Gazette that, if elected, he would incorporate “extensive constitutional training” among his staff and will terminate law enforcement officials who “willfully violate citizens’ rights.”
“I have always upheld and defended the constitutional rights of the citizens of this county. I will continue to do that as sheriff,” he said. However, when it comes to certain mandates — such as those for masks or vaccines — he would not enforce them because they are “unconstitutional” and those decisions are “personal choices.”
But he also said it’s the duty of law enforcement officers to enforce federal and state laws, which should be challenged in court if they are believed to be unconstitutional. This ensures no one person dictates what is and isn’t constitutional and the people have the power to change the law with their vote, he said.
While law enforcement agencies can neglect enforcing certain laws to some degree, Pitcavage said, it’s risky. For example, sheriffs who refuse to enforce Colorado’s red-flag law could face jail time.
“If (sheriffs), on their own independent decision, could stop the enforcement of federal or state law just because they don’t like them … that totally subverts the rule of law,” Pitcavage previously told a Gazette reporter in February.
However, it is much harder to hold sheriffs accountable than police chiefs, who answer to a city administration governed by a council.
In some cases, a governor might have to remove a sheriff, Pitcavage said Thursday. In others, the sheriff can be removed by a vote of the people, said Bill Ray, a spokesman for the County Sheriffs of Colorado, a nonprofit that advocates for sheriff’s offices across the state.
Ray declined to answer The Gazette’s questions about what authority county sheriffs have to refuse to enforce certain laws and what would happen if an El Paso County sheriff decided not to cooperate with federal agencies. The organization “does not engage in sheriff races or with candidates running for sheriff” and “does not have an official position on the constitutional sheriffs issue,” he said.
Fellow sheriff candidates Joe Roybal, also a Republican, and John Foley, the Democrat in the race, say the idea of a constitutional sheriff is both redundant and a distraction from discussions on policy.
The man elected El Paso County’s next sheriff will face an understaffed office, an agency that has been riddled by lawsuits and a time of shifting public opinion about law enforcement.
“I think it is just headline-capturing,” said Roybal, El Paso County’s undersheriff who has served the department for more than 26 years. “In my opinion, this is meant to not only confuse, but (also to) trick voters. As law enforcement officers, we all swear an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of state of Colorado. How does a constitutional sheriff affect policy? And what you’re promising — is that even legal? Do you have the jurisdiction to do that?”
Foley, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman and worked in military intelligence, said the term implies other law enforcement and military officers “don’t care about the Constitution.”
“Go to the commander at Fort Carson and ask him, ‘Are you a constitutional general?’ Ask a private in the Army if they’re a constitutional private. It makes no sense, because they’re saying everyone who doesn’t use that label is against the Constitution. That’s not the case.”
Constitutional sheriffs could particularly clash with federal law enforcement when it comes to immigration policy. On his campaign website, Watkins states a constitutional sheriff should require state or federal law enforcement agencies attempting to enforce law in El Paso County to first obtain the sheriff’s consent.
This could include enforcing immigration policy. According to the Constitutional Sheriff’s and Peace Officers Association, military troops and armed drones should be placed at the United States’ southern borders to “close off the flood” of immigrants coming into the country. The organization also calls for deporting foreign nationals living in the U.S. without official authorization.
In recent years El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, who is term-limited and cannot run for the office again, and Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell have had their enforcement of federal immigration policies challenged in state court.
But so far, a sheriff has not tried to keep federal agents out of a county, Pitcavage said.
“To date, there has been more posturing — often with an eye towards conservative voters — than active resistance against federal authority,” he said. “But if (the constitutional sheriffs movement) keeps up, there is always the possibility of a hotheaded or rash sheriff deciding to attempt something more serious.”
And there are other risks, he said.
“Sheriffs or others who buy into this notion can then become more receptive to other ideas and conspiracy theories of anti-government extremists. They can also become more sympathetic to them and more willing to look the other way when it comes to their activities.”
The Gazette’s Mary Shinn and Colorado Politics’ Michael Karlik contributed to this report.
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