Despite warnings, law enforcement training safeguard removed
Warnings issued by high-profile civil rights and advocacy groups to Arizona’s governor and attorney general failed to stop a rule change that effectively lowers the bar for extremist organizations attempting to radicalize law enforcement officers through government-funded training.
Letters sent in March by the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center implored the Governor’s Office and other state agencies to intervene before the rule’s April 5 implementation. They warned it created a loophole that could be exploited by domestic extremist groups.
The contentious rule change, as first reported by AZCIR in 2022, shifted the responsibility of continuing education training oversight from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to law enforcement agency heads. Previously, AZPOST denied at least one extremist group from conducting such training in 2021.
In their letters, one of which also went to the U.S. Department of Justice, the groups raised concerns about eliminating the longstanding safeguard and cited an increase in extremist and conspiratorial rhetoric espoused by Arizona public officials, including publicly elected sheriffs. The advocacy and civil rights groups joined the Arizona chapter of the NAACP, which sent a letter to AZPOST in December 2022, in opposing the shift.
“We are deeply concerned by the possibility that this amended rule will open the door for Arizona peace officers to receive training from adherents of the ‘constitutional sheriffs’ movement and other actors who urge local law enforcement to assume authorities beyond those allowed by law,” wrote Mary McCord, the executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s ICAP, a nonpartisan institute focused on constitutional rights and protecting democratic processes.
McCord warned that such taxpayer-funded trainings “would place residents at risk of improper activity by county peace officers” and pose a particular threat to brown and Black communities, “who are at the greatest risk of harm from abuses by law enforcement.”
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The letters cited previous AZCIR reporting about so-called “constitutional sheriff” groups, which include the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The group is part of a national movement built on the idea that a sheriff’s power supersedes that of higher government entities, such as the president and the U.S. Supreme Court, and that sheriffs have a duty to nullify laws they interpret as unconstitutional.
The civil rights and advocacy organizations highlighted numerous connections between the CSPOA and a variety of hate groups, with the NAACP denouncing some CSPOA members as “prominent antisemites, QAnon conspiracists, white nationalists and neo-confederates.”
“If the revised rule goes into effect, we fear that domestic extremists, based on their previous actions, will rush to take advantage of the opportunity,” wrote Sarah Kader, community manager for ADL Arizona, a state-level branch of a national organization that combats hate groups in the U.S.
Rachel Goldwasser, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center, warned that the rule change could be used as a blueprint for creating workarounds allowing extremist organizations to train law enforcement in other states.
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The Hobbs administration didn’t directly address such concerns in an emailed statement to AZCIR, saying it believes “existing rules provide mechanisms to revoke credit for trainings that embrace extremist views.”
“Governor Hobbs is adamantly opposed to extremist groups providing training to our law enforcement and believes no officer should receive credit for trainings done by extremists,” wrote Christian Slater, Hobbs’ communication director.
Though he stressed the new rule was enacted under Hobbs’ predecessor, former Gov. Doug Ducey, Slater said the current administration “is working with the AZPOST to ensure we monitor the situation and use every available legal means to protect against extremists training law enforcement officers.”
In an email response, Arizona Attorney General Kris Mayes echoed Hobbs’ assessment of the situation and committed her office to countering extremist ideologies.
“As the top law enforcement official in Arizona and a member of the AZPOST Board, I am committed to working closely with my fellow board members, AZPOST leadership, Governor Hobbs, and local law enforcement leaders to ensure that decisions regarding continuing education are suitable and meet the high standards we set for law enforcement professionals in our state,” Mayes wrote.
Neither the governor nor the attorney general detailed which mechanisms were in place to prevent extremists groups from taking advantage of the loophole, or what could be done to mitigate harm to law enforcement if extremist trainings do take place.
ADL confirmed it did not receive a response from Hobbs’ office until after the rule change took effect, though a spokesperson indicated the group had “every reason to believe that the Governor’s office understands the concerns we have raised in our letters and is taking them seriously.” Slater said the Governor’s Office met with ADL, ICAP and SPLC but did not specify when.
Email correspondence obtained by AZCIR shows AZPOST Executive Director Matt Giordano also met with state NAACP representatives, but nothing substantive changed as a result. Instead, Giordano confirmed the board would no longer be responsible for approving continuing education credits for local law enforcement, and that the group would approve any trainings put forward by law enforcement leaders. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
According to Arizona NAACP attorney Dianne Post, who attended the meeting, Giordano said the agency would conduct an annual audit of trainings—a strategy she believes falls short.
“It still allows for the training to happen, to be funded locally, and not to even be found out about until a year or more later,” said Post, who authored the NAACP letter. “AZPOST has already washed their hands of it.”
A post-training audit stands in stark contrast to AZPOST’s previous role in preemptively safeguarding the quality of trainings: In 2021, for instance, AZPOST refused to approve a CSPOA program, later stating that it was in “direct conflict with our basic academy curriculum.”
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, who was a featured speaker at a CSPOA event in 2019 and also chairs the AZPOST board, declined to comment for this story. After receiving the letter from the NAACP, however, Dannels “disavowed any support of the CSPOA” at a criminal justice meeting hosted by the civil rights group, according to Anthony Isom, the Criminal Justice Committee chair for the Greater Huachuca Area Branch of the NAACP.
In their letters, ADL, SPLC and the NAACP expressed concerns that more than half of Arizona sheriffs are at least partially aligned with the constitutional sheriff movement—connections AZCIR highlighted in its 2022 reporting.
“Arizona has a large extremist presence in the Legislature, sheriffs’ offices and among the public, unfortunately,” said Goldwasser, the SPLC analyst. “Any opportunity for these extremists to spread their ideology, they often will exploit.”
Three of the four letters also issued a warning about Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb, who has known ties to CSPOA and is the frontman for Protect America Now, another so-called “constitutional sheriff” organization.
Lamb, who announced a bid for the U.S. Senate in April, has developed a national presence by appearing on a slew of right-leaning news networks and podcasts to talk about everything from the Second Amendment and border security to election integrity. He has also appeared on more extreme programs, including those espousing QAnon conspiracies. Lamb did not respond to a request for comment.
“In recent years, extreme ideologies have been mainstreamed and normalized at an alarming pace,” wrote Kader of Arizona ADL. “This is due in large part to the growing number of elected officials and other high-profile individuals who traffic in conspiracies and hate.”
During the 2022 election cycle, Protect America Now and CSPOA teamed up with True the Vote, a controversial election-monitoring group based in Texas, in an attempt to expand sheriffs’ role in election integrity and security beyond their existing jurisdiction. Although Lamb has decreased his public rhetoric about election denialism, CSPOA founder Richard Mack and his organization have not.
“Since the 2020 election, Mack and his allies have tried to investigate meritless claims of election fraud, which has raised the prospect that CSPOA-aligned sheriffs may try to intimidate voters in future elections,” McCord wrote.
But, the threat posed by CSPOA infiltrating law enforcement goes beyond elections.
“Local law enforcement are indispensable partners in combating the nationwide rise in political violence that has taken aim at the free administration of elections, public health policies, marginalized populations and American democracy itself,” McCord wrote. “But in order to serve as effective partners in safeguarding the constitutional system, law enforcement must receive accurate information about the boundaries of their authority.”
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