Sheriff survey reveals attitudes on immigration, Constitution

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Marshall Project, USA Today

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-10-18

Language: English

Authors: Maurice Chammah, Emily Farris, Mirya Holman, Anastasia Valeeva, Katie Park


Maurice Chammah is a staff writer for The Marshall Project and the author of “Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty.”

Emily Farris is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, at Texas Christian University.

Mirya Holman is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, at Tulane University.

Anastasia Valeeva was a data fellow at The Marshall Project. She joined the data team as part of the Alfred Friendly fellowship program run by Press Partners.

Katie Park is a developer and data journalist who creates data visualizations and digital features at The Marshall Project.

Project description:

Sheriffs run jails across the U.S. In rural areas, they are functionally police chiefs, overseeing everything from traffic patrols to homicide investigations. Their policy decisions about enforcement—from immigration to abortion to evictions—shape the lives of millions of Americans. But unlike police chiefs, they face very little oversight and some stay in power for decades. Recently, many have earned national notoriety for their controversial opinions and abusive jail conditions. Our goal was to understand how sheriffs’ personal views shape their policy decisions—and how many subscribe to a growing far-right movement that teaches them they are more powerful than governors and presidents.

Impact reached:

More than 500 sheriffs responded to our survey – roughly 1 in 6 nationwide. Hundreds agreed with a far-right idea that their power supersedes that of governors and presidents. Many expressed negative attitudes toward immigrants that help explain their enthusiastic embrace of Donald Trump’s policies. Dozens said they personally agreed with Oath Keepers, the militia associated with the Jan. 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol.

The team produced two stories on the results, which were co-published with USA Today. The first outlined the history of sheriffs — from the British colonies to the Jim Crow South — and used survey results to dissect their modern-day role as politicians, jail wardens, and law enforcement policymakers. The second story documented the rise of the far-right “Constitutional Sheriff” movement and its charismatic founder Richard Mack.

Partnering with USA Today, which distributed the stories to its vast network of local newspapers, gave our reporting broad reach. USA Today also did an interview with Chammah on its [“Five Things” podcast](https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2022/11/04/cop-27-climate-summit-trumps-ongoing-legal-issues-5-things-podcast/8264866001/).

Chammah was interviewed by Cheryl Thompson for [NPR: Inside The Constitutional Sheriffs Movement](https://www.npr.org/2022/10/22/1130755532/inside-the-constitutional-sheriff-movement), which was picked up by 36 public radio stations nationwide. He was featured on NPR’s [WBUR Here and Now](https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/and%20mirya%20on%20the%20takeaway%20https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/do-you-know-whos-running-sheriff), Vox’s podcast [Today, Explained](https://www.stitcher.com/show/today-explained/episode/power-tripping-sheriffs-209557595), Wisconsin Public Radio’s [The Morning Show](https://www.wpr.org/people/maurice-chammah), the Fever Dreams Podcast with [Mule Manjia](https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/mule-majnia-w-maurice-chammah/id1558716930?i=1000583911536) and on Radio France’s [American Fractures](https://www.radiofrance.fr/franceculture/podcasts/cultures-monde/mid-terms-la-democratie-en-ballotage-2628813) series.

A New York Times editorial, “[Extremists in Uniform Put the Nation at Risk](https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/13/opinion/us-police-military-extremism.html?partner=slack&smid=sl-share),” referenced our story: “A recent investigation by the Marshall Project found that hundreds of sheriffs nationwide are part of or are sympathetic to the ideas behind the constitutional sheriffs movement, which holds that sheriffs are above state and federal law and are not required to accept gun laws, enforce Covid restrictions or investigate election results.” The survey was cited by numerous local news outlets, including in [Washington](https://crosscut.com/politics/2022/11/right-wing-constitutional-sheriffs-ballot-wa) and [Colorado](https://www.kunc.org/news/2022-11-23/sheriff-opposition-to-colorados-red-flag-gun-law-under-scrutiny-after-club-q-shooting).

Techniques/technologies used:

Chammah’s key innovation in reporting this story was a collaboration with two political science professors, Emily Farris and Mirya Holman, with whom he had developed trust as sources over the course of several years. Together, they worked out a unique arrangement. Working with the Institutional Review Boards at Tulane University and Texas Christian University, Chammah had to make careful decisions about the ethics of a project that needed to meet the demands of academic research as well as journalistic integrity. The Marshall Project purchased a contact list from the National Sheriffs Association, and then Farris and Holman scoured dozens of websites in order to produce a total email list that nearly accounted for all of America’s 3,000-plus sheriffs. Farris and Holman preserved the anonymity initially promised to responders, but allowed sheriffs to agree to follow-up interviews, which Chammah performed.

Anastasia Valeeva used Python scripts and a lot of back-and-forth with the researchers to analyze the data for the stories. Katie Park and Anatasia took the data and built it into dozens of graphics powered by D3.js used to provide rich context on the views of sheriffs and make thorny comparisons clear.

Context about the project:

To report this story, Chammah attended a training hosted by the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers association. At this gathering of far-right sheriffs, one speaker repeatedly threatened him and other journalists, who were identifiable as some of the only people present wearing COVID-19 face masks. But even so, Chammah managed to secure an interview with the organization’s leader, Richard Mack, who regularly accuses journalists of lying but praised Chammah’s rigor and professionalism, even as the article itself gave voice to claims that Mack is dangerous to American democracy.

Chammah worked with the professors to design survey questions that would parse the connections between opinions and policies. To give one example, they used questions written by the nonpartisan American National Election Studies to assess negative views of immigrants. They asked the sheriffs to agree or disagree with the statement, “Immigrants today take advantage of jobs and opportunities here without doing enough to give back to the community.” Then they asked the sheriffs whether their deputies check the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses, traffic violators or people arrested for non-violent crimes. They were able to show that sheriffs who hold negative views of immigrants are more likely to aggressively check immigration status, shedding light on why so many sheriffs have worked with the federal government on immigration enforcement. They took a similar approach to questions about gun control, policing reform, and the 2020 racial justice protests.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

They can learn how to hold their local sheriffs accountable, by understanding with more depth what the sheriffs actually do at a practical level and how their policy choices affect the lives of residents, as well as what ideological forces are shaping their policy choices.

Project links: