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It’s time to question the role of sheriffs in Wisconsin and beyond

When replacing Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney, we should also examine the unique role sheriffs play.

Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney is retiring. The next primary and general elections for sheriff are in 2022. In the meantime, Governor Tony Evers will appoint an interim replacement. I have been focused on the role of the sheriff in the U.S. for a few years: In 2019, I attended a training to support my own prospective bid for sheriff. This past summer, I helped program a series of public talks called There’s a New Sheriff in County to highlight and reconsider the powerful role of the sheriff and to demonstrate the importance of extending abolitionist praxis beyond city police departments, and into the realm of the county, and the sheriff. During this series, we explored questions about both abolishing the position of the sheriff and what an abolitionist sheriff might look like. To abolish the position will require an amendment in the state constitution. An abolitionist sheriff, on the other hand, could make big strides—not to improve the current system but to redefine the system’s purpose. I am more and more convinced that filling this role with someone truly justice-driven could be transformative, and more importantly, that it is possible. 

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As you may recall, Sheriff Mahoney is far from a progressive ally. This past summer the Sheriff’s Office issued a press release publicly shaming the Free the 350 Bail Fund for paying the bail of several Black people accused of various crimes—at a time when COVID-19 was spreading in the downtown Dane County Jail. The point of this piece, however, isn’t to focus on Mahoney as the problem but to argue that it is time to question the entire role of the sheriff. 

Sheriffs play an incredibly unique role in American law enforcement, often overseeing a range of issues from traffic enforcement to death certificates. Sheriffs determine what issues are prioritized and do so with relatively unchecked discretionary power and little direct oversight. In most places, they are elected, meaning that voters can influence the types of issues taken up by the Office of the Sheriff. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of sheriffs taking creative, often horrifying actions with their unique positions of power. For instance, the infamous Joe Arpaio proclaimed himself to be “America’s toughest sheriff,” overseeing what the U.S. Department of Justice concluded was the worst pattern of racial profiling in U.S. history. His tenure included years of holding people in tent concentration camps in the Arizona heat, and forcing inmates to wear pink underwear. 

Arpaio, however, is not alone. He is part of a much larger movement in the U.S. of sheriffs such as former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and former Graham County, Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack who enact various pro-gun, anti-state, white supremacist, and anti-immigrant projects as part of their vision of the “constitutional sheriff.” While it doesn’t align with the U.S. legal system, the constitutional sheriff movement believes that sheriffs have the power to defy any laws they deem unconstitutional. By 2013, 500 sheriffs in the U.S. had agreed not to enforce any gun laws created by the federal government. 

Compared to the boldness of their tactics and logics, it is a comparatively low bar for progressives to get excited about a new sheriff who simply refuses to collaborate with ICE or enacts reforms like asking deputies to announce their intention to shoot you before they do, an absurd reform touted by the 8 Can’t Wait Campaign. Instead, what might a justice-driven sheriff look like? Since sheriffs operate the county jail, rather than getting caught in a debate around bail as we did with Mahoney, the sheriff could transition the county away from any jail at all. While oriented differently, this vision is no more radical than that of any self-proclaimed constitutional sheriff who already holds office. 

Our new president, Joe Biden, has said he will prioritize addressing COVID-19, racism, climate change, and economic issues. These issues are often discussed as disparate, but in fact they are interconnected. For example, housing is one thread that connects these issues plaguing the U.S., and Dane County, in particular, is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis. Intertwined with policing and racism, untangling housing issues can simultaneously offer opportunities to pursue initiatives such as investment in no-carbon housing. Moreover, in case COVID-19 has not made this abundantly clear, it is to the benefit of all to live in a community where everyone has access to safe housing. Sheriffs can actualize, on the local level, a conception of public safety that takes these issues into account, and connects them to one another. 

Yet sheriffs are responsible for carrying out evictions. By following the well-worn path, sheriffs spend more time contributing to housing instability than helping stabilize their constituents. While there are some recent accounts of rebel constables trying to help tenants stay in their homes, we cannot rely on a few rebels given the depth of the problems we face. So, what if Dane County had a sheriff that dedicated their resources to guaranteed housing for everyone in the county? What if we measured success by the number of people housed? These are the initiatives we should prioritize, and there is every reason to start these initiatives at the county level. 

We are facing a slew of interconnected issues that need to be urgently addressed. We are past the point of empty rhetoric and economic myths that justice will trickle down. Focusing on making meaningful improvements on a local level cuts across partisan divides. It is too late to continue along a status quo that never worked for everyone, but not too late to dream of an alternative. This means transforming what we expect a sheriff can believe and accomplish. It also means transforming our understanding of public safety. 

Evers will soon appoint an interim sheriff who will serve until the 2022 election. While Evers ran on reducing the prison population, activists have been dismayed by relative inaction on this front. Appointing a sheriff to decarcerate at the level of the county jail could help him make good on his promises. We need to be thoughtful about what we want government to be for, who we want it to be for, and how it can be used to actually make our communities safer and more resilient. It’s time to advocate for a sheriff who will lead the way towards making meaningful change in Dane County. 

As a freedom-loving patriot, I am happy to announce my interest in serving as the next sheriff of Dane County. If Evers wants to appoint “Sheriff Sasha,” let him know that I’m armed with knowledge and ready to serve.

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