The office of sheriff was created to address worries exactly like the rampant militarization of police forces in America, claim two sheriffs who have challenged elected officials in their states over what they believe are unconstitutional abuses of power.
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"Right now the threat to individual Americans from al-Qaida and other groups is nowhere near the threat we face from officials in our own country who are working at taking away our liberties," Delaware Sheriff Jeff Christopher told WND.
Christopher has firsthand knowledge of the desire of government officials to usurp authority over local law-enforcement agencies.
In 2012, state lawmakers in Delaware – with the support of Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden – pushed through legislation that redefined the duties of sheriffs and their deputies to that of process servers and prisoner transport. The legislation stripped them of all arrest authority to the point where animal control and the game warden had more authority.
Christopher and other supporters of the constitutional role of the sheriff, however, are fighting back.
"The battle of liberty is never over. We are attempting to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot overturning the law stripping us of our arrest authority."
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For Sheriff Christopher, the battle is not just about his personal authority. It goes straight to the heart of concerns many people hold over what is perceived as the increasing militarization of police agencies.
"I believe the intent of taking away the authority of the sheriff," Christopher said, "is to set up a situation where the state police have the power to enforce unconstitutional legislation while preventing the sheriff from being able to stand against them."
WND has reported extensively for more than a decade on the trend of arming government and police agencies with personal equipment typically used by members of the military in the performance of routine arrests, which has had tragic outcomes.
Surveys conducted by criminologist Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University noted that in 1983 just 13 percent of towns between 25,000 and 50,000 people had a SWAT team. However, by 2005 the figure was up to 80 percent.
With the increase in the number of SWAT teams, local police have increasingly used the new technology and training for questionable reasons.
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Along with the increase in the number of SWAT teams has come a corresponding increase in raids by the military-style trained officers. In the 1970s, there were just a few hundred raids per year. However, in the 1980s the number of raids jumped to 3,000 per year. In 2005, the number is a stratospheric 50,000.
Additionally, the number of agencies that possess their own police departments has increased at an alarming rate.
Fox News recently reported an astounding 40 federal agencies now have their own armed employees, including a dozen not normally associated with law enforcement. Among the government agencies with their own armed personnel are the Department of the Interior, NASA, Library of Congress, the Federal Reserve Board, Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Even the Department of Education has its own "special forces" team.
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The Education Department's team was discovered only after the agency sent members of its SWAT team to raid the home of a woman suspected of defrauding the federal student loan program.
By having their own law-enforcement arms, several federal departments are now eligible for military-grade equipment under a federal initiative going back to the George H.W. Bush administration known as the 1033 program. The program's mission statement states it exists to administer and transfer Department of Defense excess personal property deemed suitable for use by federal, state and law-enforcement agencies.
The program offers a variety of equipment, ranging from armored vehicles and High Mobile Multi-Wheeled Vehicles, or Humvees, to generators, tents, bayonets, office furniture, trucks, watercraft and even aircraft. The request form to request items is relatively simple, asking basic information such as the number of square miles in the department's jurisdiction and whether the area is known for drug trafficking.
Items such as tanks, artillery and missiles are not currently available for law-enforcement agencies through the program, however critics have been warning recently about what they believe is an incremental approach of gradually arming law enforcement with equipment and weapons that are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from military armament. It is not uncommon to see SWAT teams armed with AR-15 rifles complete with grenade launchers.
Colorado's Weld County Sheriff John Cooke said while he understands the concerns about law enforcement agencies having military equipment, he says the equipment available under the program has practical uses to help protect the public and officers in the case of shooting incidents.
"We had a case recently where having an armored vehicle would have been helpful," Cooke explained. "An individual was shooting at our deputies, and you can see the bullet holes in our patrol cars. In this instance an armored vehicle would have enabled the officers to have more effective cover during the incident. The vehicles also allow law enforcement to safely remove a person who has been wounded, and is in a place where officers cannot normally safely move in to retrieve them."
Cooke is known for taking a strong stand for constitutional liberties. Recently he was party to a lawsuit against the state over a radical series of gun-control laws passed by Democrats in last year's legislative session. Cooke made national news when he declared he had no intention of enforcing the gun-control laws in his county, saying they were blatantly unconstitutional.
He says it is important to put into perspective the use of weapons by police departments.
"We have AR-15s, which we purchased from a police supply store," Cooke explained. "However, I have a 30-.06 hanging up in my office. That's what we used back in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is a far more powerful weapon than the AR-15."
Cooke said he thinks the concerns are an issue not so much of law enforcement vs. civilians as much as the differences between rural and urban environments and the unique relationship sheriffs have with their communities.
"Most of the examples using SWAT teams in these incidents take place in an urban environment. I do think that in some cities there is an us vs. them mentality among some police departments, but we don't have that problem here in Weld County," Cooke explained.
"In fact we frequently work alongside of civilians in instances, such as where livestock gets out. In the rural areas a resident may catch someone breaking into his neighbor's house and hold the suspect at gunpoint until a deputy arrives and help us with the arrest," he continued.
"There was one instance where I was a cop up in Breckenridge, and I had to do a bar check, when a guy wanted to fight me," Cooke said. "A couple of the locals pushed me aside and told him 'Hey, nobody fights with our cops around here.' They were backing me up. Citizens are usually willing to help us out whenever needed, and we welcome it."
Cooke said he believes while this attitude is a reflection of leadership, it also goes directly to the key difference between the sheriff's office and police departments.
"I hear all the time from people in Weld County that say, 'I love your deputies, they really bend over backwards to help us and are friendly, but this other agency isn't friendly or as helpful,'" Cooke said. "I think there is a big difference between law enforcement officers who are working for an elected official versus an appointed official."
The unique, protective power of local sheriffs
While the sheriff is an elected position, the head of the state police is appointed by the governor, and police chiefs are appointed by the mayors of their cities. Therefore, Christopher said, state police and police chiefs are beholden to the government officials who appointed them rather than the individual people under their jurisdiction, and this is why his battle to retain authority in Delaware is so important.
"Whatever mandate comes down from the governor goes down to the colonel, who is appointed by the governor and passes it down to the troops," Christopher explained. "They are basically subject to any type of order that comes down, and if they are insubordinate and resist it they are going to lose their job, whereas the sheriff can say, 'I'm sorry, you have no control over me. I am a stand-alone entity; I am autonomous from your mandate because I am an elected member of the executive branch and you are of the legislative branch, and I don't have to enforce any pretended legislation. All I have to do is serve the people, and if they don't want it, I'm not forcing it upon them.'"
Cooke said he agrees with Christopher and that what occurred in Delaware "was a travesty in my opinion."
Cooke sees sheriffs as being a check and balance against state and federal tyranny.
"A lot of times a person may say he is willing to see what the sheriff has to say, as compared to another law enforcement official from a different agency," Cooke stated. "In Connecticut where they are trying to register everyone's guns and not having much luck, I can see a situation where the state police could be ordered by the governor to do whatever he feels is necessary to get those people to register their guns."
Christopher agrees, however he says unlike citizens in Weld County who have a sheriff willing to stand up for their liberties and freedoms, the problem residents of Connecticut face is they no longer have any sheriffs to protect them since the state eliminated the office in 2000.
"What do the people of Connecticut expect? They don't have sheriffs to stand in their traditional role to nullify the law and refuse to allow gun confiscation," Christopher said. "If they still had sheriffs, the governor or state police would not even be thinking of confiscation. That is why the sheriff is elected instead of appointed. He owes his allegiance to the people."
Christopher explained that the office of the sheriff was established to stand for the rights of the individual residents in their counties against the corporate tyranny of other groups, whether at the state or federal level.
"He is to be the chief member of the executive branch in a county to ensure there are no overreaching governments from the county level, to the state and federal level," he said.
"If there is no dutiful entity beholden to the idea of protecting and interposing on behalf of the people, then none exists. The county officials will mostly do whatever the state police say because they have contracted with them to be their authority," he continued. "But if you have a separate authority that is inserted at the county level, then you have a balance of power in the form of an executive leader in the sense he or she is elected to do the will of the people and not the will of the state or the federal government. They can say, 'Among my powers and among my duties is to protect the liberties and freedoms of the people within my county, and therefore I can nullify or refuse to exercise execution of any kind of unconstitutional law that forces upon the people the will of the corporate.
"The sheriff's job is to protect the individual people first and not the people as a corporate group," Christopher said. "When you do that you have a republic; when you go the other way you have tyranny."
Cooke agrees that the the sheriff is the supreme law-enforcement authority in his county, and his job is to defend the constituents in his county. He said this is the reason why there is a movement to strip sheriff's of their authority.
"Usually the sheriff is the most popular elected official in his county, and that rubs certain officials the wrong way," Cooke said. "I think there is sometimes a movement to try and limit that authority. They also recognize the authority the sheriff has, and they don't like that, so officials, whether it be state legislators or others, try to limit that authority."
Cooke said sheriffs are the ones on the front lines standing against Obama's desire to create a "civilian national defense force," as first reported by WND in 2008.
The shocking statement was made in a speech then-candidate Obama made on July 2, 2008, in Colorado Springs, Colo.
In talking about his plans to double the size of the peace corps and nearly quadruple the size of AmeriCorps and the size of the nation's military services, he made a shocking pledge: "We cannot continue to rely on our military in order to achieve the national security objectives we've set. We've got to have a civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded."
The statement was ignored by media with the exception of WND.
At the time, Obama refused to elaborate on what he meant. As his administration has unfolded, however, gradual steps have been implemented to increase the police power of the federal government.
In 2011, WND founder Joseph Farah noted with the defense re-authorization bill the president secured the authority to essentially use his security force whenever he desires.
"The 'civilian national security force' is now in place. The U.S. military has been authorized by Congress and Obama to arrest and detain indefinitely without charge or trial any U.S. citizen on suspicion of being a terrorist. The only one who can override the order is Obama himself," Farah wrote.
Cooke said he is aware of Obama's call for a civilian national security force, but he sees a major flaw in the president's plan.
"Fortunately he has not been able to do it yet, and I don't think the sheriff's across the country will allow it to happen."