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Posse Comitatus


A newsletter about sheriffs and the political power of law enforcement

Sheriff: Lifestyle Brand

Last week, Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody got himself indicted on felony charges for tampering with evidence related to the death of Javier Ambler. While filming a segment for Live PD – a partnership Chody said would improve his department’s “reputation” – Williamson County deputies pursued Mr. Ambler in an over-20-minute car chase – which ended in a car crash –  and then tased him until he died on the scene, all because Mr. Ambler allegedly did not dim his headlights. This was captured on video by the Live PD crew, but was subsenquently destroyed.
 
Sheriff Chody previously was exposed by the media for instigating unnecessary car chases and violent arrests for the viewing pleasure of his Live PD audience, enough to alarm county government officials, who began to question Chody’s motives and methods. According to the local news, Chody’s office had a special team of deputies sent out with Live PD crews, which led to a 54% increase in high-speed chases. (Chody’s office also violently assaulted and arrested a woman who called for help in a domestic violence situation.)
 
Car chases are incredibly dangerous for everyone involved. But they make for good television, and television shows like Live PD and COPS show disproportionately more car chases than actually occur in real life. Beyond the concern that shows like Live PD and COPS encourage excessive violence and evidence tampering, they also present the public with an image of crime that is racist and glorify sheriffs who resort to extreme violence.
 
People love a good sheriff on television, especially when that sheriff isn’t exactly on the up-and-up. J.B. Smith, the ex-sheriff of Smith County, Texas, allegedly is getting his own show. (Smith was also indicted for tampering with evidence when he set fire to a car to destroy incriminating evidence. He served decades in office and was not removed.) But the sheriff has become his own brand, a law enforcement influencer if you will, deployed in the service of Trump, his administration, and like-minded militia groups.
 
Sheriff Mark Lamb in Pinal County, Arizona, is an example of a sheriff influencer. Shortly after he assumed office, Lamb invited Live PD to follow his department and has made guest appearances on the show as a commentator. While the county Board of Supervisors questioned the public safety motives behind these choices, Lamb catapulted his celebrity into becoming an important shill for the GOP, refusing to enforce mask orders and contracting COVID himself.
 
Even his Instagram tagline, “American Sheriff,” implies a sense of transcendence: the sheriff is more than a man, he’s a myth, an icon, a lifestyle brand. Sheriff’s Lamb’s wife runs her own Instagram where she markets herself as the sheriff’s wife, her own brand that involves American flag printed apparel and selling some sort of eyebrow service that sounds like an MLM. Sheriff Lamb also runs his own nonprofit – which has some shady accounting according to the Arizona Republic – and an online shop selling militia merch.
 
Believe it or not, being a media star has long been considered an important aspect of the sheriff’s role. As elected officials, sheriffs are politicians and must campaign for votes. But, unlike other elected positions, the job of sheriff has always been affiliated with a showman’s flair. One pre-internet example is the proliferation of sheriff books written by and about sheriffs. The history of the office is hard to trace precisely because there are so many revisions and edits by the very people most interested in preserving it.
 
With social media, it’s easy for a law enforcement agency to create self-produced videos that function as propaganda under the guise of public information. Inspired by shows like COPS and Live PD, sheriff departments, in particular, have begun to broadcast arrests, the execution of search warrants, and traffic stops. Many other sheriffs appear in serialized television shows as if they were characters in their own novel. In Sacramento, California, for example, Sheriff Scott Jones allowed Netflix to film a show about the jail. And in Brevard County, Sheriff Wayne Ivey is known for his splashy video “Wheel of Fugitive.”
 
The office of sheriff has always been up to interpretation and revision. In part, this is because the position came before the advent of “professionalized” police and has always generated a clash between philosophies of policing. Should policing be subject to a populist majority? Or should it rely on a set of principals and standards? A 1992 book about sheriffs in Arizona compared the relationship between sheriffs and urban police as “a stormy marriage” where “sheriff resented these interloping policemen who possessed the power to make arrests…and thus rob them of fees and mileage” in addition to disturbing the paternal relationship between a sheriff and the “minor troublemakers” who were just good boys gone wrong.
 
I see. As is the case of many books about sheriffs by sheriff sympathizers, I assume this summary takes many liberties with the truth. But fiction is more fun than fact.
 
 

Other Reading

  1. The Atlantic published a comprehensive story about the Oath Keepers and its founder. The Oath Keepers is an extreme right-wing group notable for their link to sheriffs: both groups often say that they are only bound by the Constitution.
  2. Jerry Sheridan, running for sheriff in Maricopa County, is pretty clear that he wants to bring back the Arpaio days.
  3. One of the many things sheriffs control is whether and how people incarcerated in county jails vote. To quote Sheriff Lee Vance in Hinds County, Mississippi: “Sheriffs for the most part are pretty much policy makers, and so there’s no set rulebook, so to speak, that’s going to regulate what every sheriff in the United States has to do.
  4. For fun, enjoy this sheriff- themed coloring book.
Jessica Pishko @jesspish 
Hate it? Love it? Email me at jesspish at gmail.com
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