Hoping to quell their constituents’ fears, the Washington State Sheriffs’ Association put out a statement last week affirming their commitment to uphold the Constitution – specifically, the Second Amendment. But a Spokane civil rights attorney is concerned the letter suggests sheriffs have powers beyond their roles as local law enforcers.
Grant County Sheriff and president of the sheriffs’ association Tom Jones said sheriffs in many counties get almost daily questions from their constituents worried about their constitutional rights being infringed upon.
Jones said the idea for a group statement came after sheriffs in Utah put out a similar letter in June. The sheriffs got together on July 15 to sign their own document.
“Promoted by increasing public concern to safeguard constitutional rights, we, the elected Sheriffs of Washington State, soundly reaffirm our sworn oaths to ‘support, obey, and defend’ the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of Washington,” the letter begins, before continuing to mention the right to bear arms specifically.
Only King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht declined to sign. She did not respond to multiple requests to comment. The King County Sheriff position will be appointed after her term ends due to a vote last year by the King County Council.
Kitsap County Sheriff Gary Simpson recently retired, and is not among the signees. His replacement has yet to be appointed.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he agrees one of the “biggest questions we get asked as sheriffs” is how they feel about gun rights.
“I think that all the sheriffs just finally went, enough, time to just make a definitive statement,” Knezovich said.
Knezovich said he sees the statement as reaffirming the oath they took when sworn in.
“We’re going to do what we’re supposed to be doing with the oath that we took upholding the constitution of the state of Washington, the United States, enforcing laws thereof,” he said. “And that’s regardless of anybody’s ethnicity, nationality, race or political lunacy. We’re going to do our jobs.”
In the letter, the sheriffs cite “destructive influences,” but do not define what those are, which Spokane civil rights attorney Jeffry Finer said allows people to “fill that in with their own private fears.”
It took a close study of the text to figure out why the letter bothered Finer, he said. He finally realized it was because the letter implies sheriffs are “untethered” from the criminal justice system, namely the courts, which interpret how the Constitution is applied.
“Sheriffs do not decide what is or is not constitutional. Courts do,” Finer said. “That’s why the sheriffs swore to their actual oath of office when they started the job. Their actual oath promises not only to support and defend, but to ‘obey.’ The sheriffs swore an oath to obey, and (the) force to be obeyed is judicial review.”
But the sheriffs’ position didn’t come as a surprise to Jeremy Ball, president and owner of Spokane’s Sharp Shooting, a gun store and firing range.
“My personal opinion is that’s a good thing and it’s good to see them reinforce that,” Ball said. “The gun issue right now is obviously, like always, a dynamic situation.”
Ball said he thinks his customers will appreciate the statement.
“I think it’s good that this is written in generality, because I think it puts in perspective that the sheriffs’ association specifically is interested in enforcing constitutional laws,” Ball said.
He also appreciates it as someone in the firearms industry, who is concerned about proposed restrictions. He mentioned a proposal restricting pistol braces, after the accessory was used in the March mass shooting in Boulder, Colorado.
While Ball hopes the general statement will quiet his customers’ concerns on a variety of proposed gun legislation, many of the sheriffs who signed the document didn’t cite specific legislation as reasoning for the letter.
Knezovich cited the political climate, noting people on the extreme ends of the political spectrum are using the threat of the government taking people’s guns to scare citizens.
“You literally have extremes on both sides that are pushing that narrative that we are going to do that,” Knezovich said.
About a decade ago, there was a movement among some sheriffs to “elevate themselves above their actual authority, calling themselves ‘constitutional officers’ with additional powers and duties,” Finer said.
The National Association of Sheriffs wrote an article at the time addressing the idea.
“Lately, there has been much discussion about the ‘Oath of Office’ taken by any elected sheriff and the legal significance of that oath of office,” the article reads.
The article acknowledges sheriff’s offices have “unique” duties because they are the only law enforcement agency that reports directly to an elected official, the sheriff, before saying sheriff’s offices are bound by judicial review.
“In short, an individual sheriff’s ‘oath of office’ does not contain any additional or unique language conferring special duties, powers or responsibilities on any Office of Sheriff,” the article reads. “As a result, an individual sheriff’s oath of office is the same or identical oath of office conferred on and taken by all of these other public local, county and state officials.”
Finer said he is concerned the signed letter tries to add additional powers.
“The pledge adds new words to the job description, namely that sheriffs will do all in their power to steadfastly protect the Second Amendment – from what or whom we need to protect the amendment goes unstated,” Finer said. “The pledge’s promise to use ‘all power’ is new; this is not in the oath of any elected official. The sheriffs have added a special, new provision and they did so on their own.”
Knezovich said the statement is not meant to be interpreted as sheriffs having more power than other elected officials or as adding to the oath, citing the most important word in the oath as “obey.”
He said the letter should not be interpreted as a dog whistle to people who believe in the anti-federal government movement led by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack.
The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, founded by Mack, posits that sheriffs are the first line of defense for the Constitution and hold power above the president, according to its website.
“If the sheriff was all that and a bag of chips, why aren’t there sheriffs in every county in the United States?” Knezovich said with a chuckle, noting two states don’t have sheriffs.
Knezovich balked at the idea, calling Mack “a phony” and “a coward.”
While Knezovich said he disapproves of the extremist point of view, he does see significant concern among people that new legislation will infringe on their rights, noting record-breaking gun and ammunition sales in 2020.
Officials allowed their cities to be burned during Black Lives Matter protests, Knezovich said, specifically mentioning the CHOP autonomous zone in Seattle.
“You don’t think that had a psychological effect on the American people?” Knezovich said. “When they view that their government will not protect them, they will protect themselves.”
Sheriff’s offices work directly for the people because the head of the office is directly elected by the people, Whitman County Sheriff Brett Myers said.
“I don’t think you’re going to find another office that’s as close to the people as the sheriff’s office,” Myers said. “That’s what keeps sheriff’s offices so focused on ensuring that the right thing is done all the time. We answer directly right to the people we serve.”
Over the years, Myers said rights have been whittled away to some degree and that concerns constituents.
While Myers said there hasn’t been anything specific in the last month or two that spurred the statement, the buildup of concerns warranted it be addressed.
Ferry County Sheriff Ray Maycumber agreed, saying changes and movement both at the state and national level left people concerned about the “long term, big picture about their right to bear arms.”
“This is just our way to kind of ease their concerns,” Maycumber said. “If it’s time to stand up and be counted, this is how we’re going to be counted.”
Douglas County Sheriff Kevin Morris said many people in his jurisdiction felt the government overreached during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s a lot of folks that felt that there was a major governmental overreaching locking people down, freedom, you know,” he said. “I think it just continually started to escalate in their own minds.”
While there’s no way to address everyone’s concerns in the brief statement, Morris said, he hoped the letter would serve as a reminder for the community to care for each other like the sheriffs are trying to do.
“We don’t have to have the exact same opinion about anything, but what we have to do in my mind is be willing to listen to somebody else’s opinion and accept that they have a right to it no matter what I think about it,” he said.
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