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Posse Comitatus


A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement

What's the difference between a posse and a militia? 

Pinal County, Arizona, Sheriff Mark Lamb launched a “Citizen Posse” program in response, he said, to protests. (So many people have applied that applications are now closed.) Even though Pinal County has seen only peaceful protests, Sheriff Lamb nonetheless said that the posse would “improve community relationships” and “squelch frustration.” (Note: The posse is open to everyone, not just residents of Pinal County.)
 
Sheriff Lamb went on, "I can call on command any of the inhabitants of the county to assist me in completing my mission, hence the posse," Lamb said. "And we wanted to be prepared should anything bad come."  The Pinal County Board of Supervisors seems to think these comments are vague and has requested more clarification on the purpose of the posse from Lamb.
 
I'm sure those four hours of training will prepare these fine men for "anything bad." Arizona has permitless carry, so anyone in the posse could carry a weapon, concealed or otherwise.
 
Back in the day, the Arizona territory required all able-bodied men to serve as posse members when called, or else face a fine. But the system wasn’t perfect. One account points out that posse members often lacked equipment or just didn’t show up. Those that did died with frightening regularity. Today, posse members are generally not given the power to arrest nor to search homes and don’t carry a badge. In most cases, posses are ceremonial and appear in parades and fundraisers. But in some cases they may make traffic stops, question witnesses, and hold people until a real deputy arrives, an official version of citizen’s arrest laws.
 
Infamously, ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio revived the posse largely for media coverage. Many of his members were suspect. One man, named Tim Gee, was both a posse member and worked for the local water company. According to Brian Sands, Gee was found at someone’s house wearing his uniform (which was “exactly the same as the deputy uniform with the exception of the badge”) while turning off this person’s water for nonpayment. Gee, it turns out, was somewhat of an unsavory character, but never fear, for Arpaio told Sands that the posse was important “simply for votes.”
 
That might be one reason why posses seem to be on the rise, at least in theory. In Oklahoma, one sheriff has over 500 applicants to his posse, with self-reported skills ranging from hand-to-hand combat to “people skills.” It's hard to get a better ratings bump. 

The modern interpretation of the posse has deeply racist roots. The Posse Comitatus Act was enacted after the Civil War and originally intended to provide the federal government the right to send military troops to Southern states to protect the voting rights of Black people. But, white supremacists and like-minded groups began to cite the Posse Comitatus Act to mean that local law enforcement had the exclusive right to enforce laws. The phrase “posse comitatus” literally means “power of the county.”
 
In the current moment, Second Amendment sanctuary groups and some anti-federal militias embrace the power of the county sheriff as an outgrowth of the Posse Comitatus movement, a group officially formed by notorious super-racist William Potter Gale, who went on to form the Christian Patriot movement. In 2009, ex-Arizona sheriff Richard Mack started the Constitutional Sheriff movement, which asserts the supremacy of the county sheriff, and he was a plaintiff in Printz v. United States, a case where Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion expanding 2nd Amendment rights, which Mack and others quote to this day to justify his political positions. As Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpepper County wrote on Facebook, “An elected Sheriff answers only to the citizenry. I will always respect the rule of law but I don’t need to wait for a court to interpret my duty for me.” Sheriff Jenkins supports the 2nd Amendment militia movement in Virginia, which has been protesting against gun legislation; he has said he would deputize every citizens of his county to guarantee their right to bear arms.
 
Some militias like the Boogaloo are specifically anti-law enforcement overall. But other militias, particularly ones that find their vested authority in the Constitution (specifically the 2nd amendment), take on a role similar to an actual sheriff’s posse. Right-wing media darling Kyle Rittenhouse has not only gotten some kind words from sheriffs, the militia that he joined was pretty similar to a sheriff’s posse, only without the application. 
 
Certainly, others have commented on the similarity and interconnectedness of militia movements and law enforcement, not the least of which is a similar goal to target Black people. The right to assemble a posse comitatus is just an extension of that. The current revival of posses, however, is surely not a coincidence at this moment where sheriffs face calls for substantive reforms, need to stay relevant and interesting in the face of professionalization, and see an opportunity to hitch their wagon to the militia movement.
 

Other Reading

  1. NPR has a new podcast on 2nd Amendment groups.
  2. The current sheriff of Smith County, Texas was just indicted for destroying evidence. I wrote a small Tweet thread about it.
  3. This Idaho sheriff race presents two candidates who seem like everything wrong with sheriff elections and the ways in which sheriff campaign.
     
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at gmail.com
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