The New Sheriffs Coming to Town

By Max Rose

From the start, the sheriff stood central to white supremacy. After the Civil War, sheriffs built power by leasing people leaving slavery to corporations. The history of lynchings in the United States is, in part, a history of sheriffs deciding only some people receive due process. The Republic, James Baldwin wrote, hired “the sheriff to keep the Republic white.”

And while the sheriff has decreased prominence in our public imagination, it remains a powerful force in incarceration and deportations. Each year, 11 million people go through county jails, most controlled by sheriffs. More than 800 people are dying in jail each year, with almost no accountability. About half of deportations from within the US during the Trump Administration pass through those same jails. Sheriffs patrol our rural areas, enforce evictions and issue concealed carry permits.

Now, a generation of organizers have dared to suggest sheriffs play a different role. In North Carolina, immigration organizers teamed up with civil rights leaders to elect new sheriffs in the seven biggest counties. In Milwaukee, in the aftermath of Sheriff Clarke’s continuous torture of inmates, organizers set a different vision for the county jail and defeated Clarke’s hand-picked successor. They built from the work of leaders in Arizona, whose tireless organizing defeated Joe Arpaio. These are radical organizers, in the first draft of rewriting the job description for a role grounded in white supremacy. In 2019, we will see the next draft towards that vision.

Click here to donate to two candidates and one grassroots group redefining the role of the sheriff. 

These candidates share three things in common:

  • A clear expression that jail should not be the place where we send people with mental health or substance abuse disorders

  • The sheriff should not to work with the Trump Administration to break apart immigrant families

  • A willingness to rethink the power of a sheriff, from a one person fiat to a position controlled by the community, through civilian review and transparency

They also have nontraditional backgrounds for a Sheriff's office, which is usually handed down to another deputy in the Office. Jails are the nation’s largest mental health providers, and see all the aftermaths of addiction- the job of the sheriff is now as much public health as law enforcement, and our standards for the role must shift accordingly. At the same time, all three candidates will focus on making sure that fewer people enter jail in the first place.

The organizations putting together this slate, Working Families Party, Data for Progress and Sheriffs for Trusting Communities, will not receive any of the funds for this work.



Mike Chapman, the sheriff of Loudoun County, sat with President Trump to brag about the extent to which his office works with federal immigration authorities. He recorded an advertisement for FAIR, an anti—immigrant group described as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. While he has stressed the need to improve mental health care to decrease recidivism, the company in charge of mental health care in the jail is a major campaign contributor, with no transparency in their results.  

The Democratic opponent, Justin Hannah, is a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan. He centered his platform on making sure that people with substance abuse disorder and mental health issues do not enter the criminal justice system. At the same time, he is focused on providing better services to people in jail custody and minimizing work with federal immigration authorities. 

Prince William

Prince William County is one of only two counties in all of Virginia to partner with ICE in what is known as 287(g) agreement. Republican Sheriff Glendell Hill, whose campaign slogan is “Citizens First”, is an ardent defender of the program. Democrat Josh King will work to end the program, which he has called the “Jim Crow of the new millennium.” Nearly one in four residents of this majority-minority county are immigrants. 

King is an Iraq War veteran, deputy sheriff, union leader and advocate for children and adults with special needs. He is the first Democrat to run for sheriff in 16 years.

Both Hannah and King received the endorsement of Giffords PAC, and have promised to advocate for common sense gun safety.

Casa in Action is an electoral organization fighting for immigrant rights. Along with their sister organization, CASA, Casa in Action has been fighting alongside its membership of over 100,000 immigrant and working class people since 1985 and has won critical victories for justice in the communities they serve. CASA and CASA in Action have earned the trust of their communities through service and through supporting strong candidates their members are excited about. They have endorsed both Hannah and King, saying that both would fight to end crises for their membership. Casa in Action will use funds to build a field program in Prince William County, leveraging their high degree of community trust to mobilize what are traditionally considered “low propensity voting” communities.

Over the next year, progressives will spend billions of dollars to get a white supremacist out of the White House and his friends out of Congress. At the same time, let’s take on this institution founded to keep white people on top.  

Max Rose is the founder and the executive director of Sheriffs for Trusting Communities.

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