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Spotlight: Departing Alabama Sheriffs Deplete Funds and (Usually) Face No Consequences

Illustration by Hisashi Ohkawa.

Spotlight: Departing Alabama Sheriffs Deplete Funds and (Usually) Face No Consequences

In January, when Phil Sims became the sheriff of Marshall County, Alabama, he found a cardboard box in a storage closet containing five government-issued smartphones, each with multiple holes drilled clear through them. His predecessor had destroyed them. The hard drives had been removed from his computers. Records were missing. The jail’s refrigerators and shelves were empty. “There was no food,” Sims said. One person incarcerated at the jail told a deputy that there had been 40 pounds of rice in the pantry, but an employee of the departing sheriff had told the person to pour it down a garbage disposal. It wasn’t merely childish high jinks. After the longtime sheriff, J. Scott Walls, lost his re-election bid, he was wired tens of thousands of dollars from the sheriff’s office’s general fund, and more than $30,000 was missing from the commissary fund. The sheriff’s office had spent tens of thousands of public dollars on expenditures that Sims described as unnecessary and excessive, including over 20,000 rolls of toilet paper.

This may sound like petty revenge from a sore loser, but it is part of a little-known tradition of Alabama sheriffs hobbling those who defeat them at the polls. and ProPublica interviewed nine of the 10 new sheriffs who beat incumbents last year. “All nine said that last-minute actions by their predecessors had negative impacts on their offices and, by extension, the public,” writes Connor Sheets. “Many of the sheriffs alleged that their predecessors acted in ways that could be described as vindictive hazing: One failed to have a badge made for the new sheriff; another threw all the sheriff’s office’s unmarked keys in a pile, leaving his replacement to figure out which went to which door or vehicle. But seven of the sheriffs made more serious accusations against their predecessors, many of which were corroborated by internal office records. Among their claims: Departing sheriffs pocketed public money, fudged financial reports, wasted sheriff’s office funds and destroyed or stole public property.”

Sheriffs, Sheets writes, “are especially vulnerable to the whims of their predecessors. Sheriffs wield far greater power than most other elected officials to spend public funds as they see fit, and they are subject to far less oversight.” Police chiefs are appointed by mayors and beholden to city councils, but sheriffs answer to no one but the voters who elect them, and generally, state legislators won’t stand up to them.

Last year, Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin pocketed more than $750,000 worth of funds earmarked for feeding people at the jail, and purchased a $740,000 beach house, earning him the nickname “Beach House Sheriff.” This turned out to be legal––a law has since been passed curbing the practice––but Entrekin may have violated the law when he took an additional $269,184 that was designated to feed federal immigration detainees.

An attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, Aaron Littman, said sheriffs need to be held accountable; they “are not feudal kings.” But, in some ways, they aren’t far off. “Since its inception, in ninth-century England—when the sheriff was called the shire reeve, or county guardian—the office has been a kind of one-man government,” Ashley Powers wrote last year for the New Yorker. “The first sheriffs were appointed by the king, and charged with collecting taxes, investigating deaths, and commanding the posse comitatus, a gang of locals dispatched to hunt fugitives.” The British brought the idea with them to America, where counties began letting voters choose their sheriffs.

Today, almost every American county has an elected sheriff, but in densely populated areas, the office’s power has been overshadowed by police. “In the South and in the West,” on the other hand, “where many counties are far larger than in Eastern states, the sheriff ties together isolated communities.” They are almost all white men, and the average tenure is 24 years. “Once you become the sheriff, you’re likely to remain the sheriff until you retire or die,” one scholar said, giving sheriffs wide latitude to shape how the law is enforced.

Powers explored a group of so-called constitutional sheriffs, who, in a nod to the posse comitatus days, “believe that the sheriff has the final say on a law’s constitutionality in his county.” They do not believe the federal government’s authority takes any precedence over their own. One such sheriff said of the Supreme Court justices, “They get up every morning and put their clothes on the same way you and I do. Why do those nine people get to decide what the rest of the country’s going to be like?” Former Sheriffs Joe Arpaio in Arizona and David Clarke in Wisconsin ascribe to this philosophy.

As Robert Tsai reported for Politico, this may seem like a fringe movement, but it is prevalent. In 2013, 500 sheriffs agreed not to enforce any federal gun laws. In Utah, almost all elected sheriffs signed an agreement to fight any federal officials who tried to limit their conception of the Bill of Rights.

In November 2018 elections, voters in some counties did manage to oust certain sheriffs in favor of more progressive candidates, Jessica Pishko wrote for The Appeal. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, for example, voters elected Garry McFadden after he promised to end the county’s longstanding cooperation agreement with ICE. “Shortly thereafter, two other sheriffs in North Carolina—Sheriff Clarence Birkhead of Durham County and Sheriff Gerald Baker in Wake County—both decided to pull out of their agreements with ICE.”

In California, a proposed bill would rein in sheriffs’ authority by authorizing counties to create civilian oversight boards with subpoena powers.

Even in Alabama, it seems, sheriffs aren’t entirely immune. In Pickens County, David Abston, who has served as sheriff for over 30 years, has resigned after he was indicted on felony charges for wire fraud and filing a false tax return. Abston is expected to plead guilty to one count of each charge. The allegation? Prosecutors say Abston exploited the law allowing him to keep jail food funds and defrauded a food bank and a Baptist church for his personal gain. It appears there is such a thing as going too far, even for sheriffs.

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.