TITUSVILLE, Fla. — Sheriff Wayne Ivey was so anxious on election night last year that he secluded himself in his house and hooked up his iPad to a projection screen showing the electoral map.
When a state was called for Donald Trump, Ivey shouted with relief. And by the end of the night, it had all sunk in: Voters not only elected Trump, they also had endorsed Ivey’s own brash, politically incorrect brand of conservative politics.
“He doesn’t back down,” said Ivey, the sheriff for Brevard County, home to Cape Canaveral and middle-class beach destinations along Florida’s east coast. “He is not afraid to take a stance, and that is what we need right now.”
With his red “Make America Great” hat prominently displayed in his office here in Titusville, Ivey is part of a wave of county sheriffs who feel emboldened by President Trump and his agenda, becoming vocal foot soldiers in the nation’s testy political and culture wars.
From deep-blue states such as Massachusetts and New York to traditionally conservative strongholds in the South and the Midwest, locally elected sheriffs have emerged as some of the president’s biggest defenders. They echo Trump’s narrative on everything from serious policy debates such as immigration to fleeting political dust-ups with NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.
With Trump dominating the national conversation through tweets, sheriffs are mimicking his antagonistic political style, alarming progressives and some legal observers who fear an increasingly undisciplined justice system. Some have even gone to battle with Democratic officials, bucking their “politically correct” policies and using rhetoric that puts some residents on edge.
“Members of law enforcement and sheriffs seem to be more comfortable articulating controversial, pro-incarceration views than in recent years,” said Daniel Medwed, a law and criminal justice professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “When you have a president who feels comfortable saying things that people would not have said in previous regimes, it emboldens other people to say those things.”
Over the past nine months, various elected sheriffs have been filmed saying that they would call Immigration and Customs Enforcement on undocumented residents, have threatened to bar sex offenders from hurricane shelters, and have proposed sending inmates to help build Trump's planned Mexican border wall.
Last month, a sheriff in Louisiana even suggested "good" inmates need to be kept in jail so they can cook, clean and wash vehicles.
In Titusville, Ivey is calling on all of his constituents to arm themselves as a countywide militia. He and many other sheriffs are producing controversial, at times jarring, videos designed to show toughness, including images of deputies beating in doors.
In an interview, Ivey said he sees it as his duty to be supportive of the president. His personal Facebook page even features a photograph of Trump along with the phrase “Leave Our President Alone.”
“The voice of the sheriffs is to help the president and help our attorney general be aware of what is taking place, the crisis and trends taking place, and be able to put laws in place,” said Ivey, who represents a county Trump won by nearly 20 points.
‘True, true friend’
Trump has cultivated a strong alliance with the nation's law enforcement officials. One week after his inauguration, he signed an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to deputize local officers to enforce federal immigration laws, reviving a policy that President Barack Obama had curtailed. In early February, Trump invited a dozen sheriffs to a White House meeting, during which he vowed to crack down on gang violence in Chicago and build his proposed border wall.
Before leaving the White House, the sheriffs gave Trump a small statue of a cowboy-hat- wearing sheriff. It was the first time, they said, that the National Sheriffs Association had ever given the statue to a non-sheriff.
The following day, Trump addressed the Major County Sheriffs Association and Major Cities Chiefs Association.
"I would like to begin my remarks with a declaration to you, and delivered to every member of the law enforcement community across the United States, you have a true, true friend in the White House," Trump said.
The conservative, law-and-order sheriff is nothing new.
From the earliest days of domestic law enforcement, conservative, outspoken sheriffs have been interwoven into the culture and political history. During the Obama administration, both Joe Arpaio in Phoenix and David Clarke in Milwaukee became well-known for their controversial views. (In August, Arpaio was pardoned by Trump for a contempt-of-court charge and Clarke resigned from his position.)
But legal analysts and other observers are surprised that the breadth and political clout of conservative sheriffs appear to be growing stronger, reflecting the coarsening of debate in the United States.
“The president is dividing this country, and it spills over into how some police officers are now doing their jobs,” said Isaiah Rumlin, chairman of the NAACP in Florida’s Duval County.
Within weeks of Trump’s inauguration, sheriffs across the country reported having productive meetings with Department of Homeland Security officials about ways they can work together to advance the president’s agenda, including on immigration.
In South Carolina’s Beaufort County, Sheriff P.J. Tanner quickly began working to restart the program that would allow several of his deputies to work alongside immigration agents to search for undocumented residents.
“We feel we now have a president who has the interests that we have at heart, and that is to protect the citizens of the United States,” Tanner said in an interview, adding that his deputies can be “the boots on the ground” for federal agents.
In Oklahoma, the administration’s skepticism of changes to drug laws and sentencing policies has also invigorated local sheriffs.
After Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association last month, the group vowed to redouble efforts to roll back an initiative approved by state voters last year that made minor drug possession a misdemeanor.
Ray McNair, the executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, said law enforcement and the administration can work together to refine all levels of the criminal justice system.
“You can bring federal officials to talk about issues, and it makes people pay attention to why they are there, and then we have the opportunity to talk about ramifications at the state and county level,” McNair said.
Other sheriffs have backed up Trump's agenda in more subtle ways, becoming local validators for his message. In Geauga County, Ohio, the sheriff barred deputies from working security at Cleveland Browns games after Trump stoked his dispute with the NFL.
With more than 3,000 sheriffs nationwide, almost all elected, the group is far from monolithic. Sheriffs in urban areas still tend to be Democrats, and many hold progressive views about sentencing reform, drug policy and immigration. Rumlin, for example, was heartened when several sheriffs, including Jacksonville’s, spoke against Trump’s comment this summer that law enforcement should be rougher while transporting prisoners.
But the growing clout of conservative sheriffs can be traced to the fact there are just far more of them, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.
Even in politically moderate communities, some local sheriffs have become vocal advocates for Trump and his agenda.
In a suburban Philadelphia county that Trump lost by nine percentage points, Chester County Sheriff Carolyn B. Welsh has been battling critics over her unwavering support for Trump. And in Buffalo, some Democrats have called on Erie County Sheriff Tim Howard to resign after he appeared in uniform at a pro-Trump rally this spring.
Howard has also publicly defied an order from New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) instructing state law enforcement officials to refrain from asking individuals about their immigration status.
“As sheriff, part of my job is enforcing our constitution and the law, regardless of what cheap political points Albany politicians are looking to score,” Howard said in a statement.
Ryan Lenz, an investigator with the Southern Poverty Law Center, said recent actions by conservative sheriffs reflect broader trends that suggest law enforcement officials in many parts of the country are tacking even further to the right.
He pointed to the growing influence of the “constitutional sheriffs,” a self-identifier that began in the 1970s but became far more visible in recent years amid concerns in rural America over Obama’s policies.
Under the movement, sheriffs vow not to enforce federal laws that they view as infringing on the constitutional rights of constituents.
Richard Mack, the executive director of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, said his organization has trained 450 sheriffs. Last year, the movement celebrated a sheriff in rural Oregon who publicly sympathized with an armed, anti-government militia that took over a federal wildlife refuge, sparking a standoff.
Traditionally, Lenz said, the constitutional sheriff movement would be waning with an administration in power that it views as less hostile.
“We are not seeing that. . . . And that is really what the 2016 election did,” said Lenz, whose organization identifies groups it views as extreme. “Across the radical right, extremist ideologies that existed along the peripheral of American politics suddenly got a boost in legitimacy, too.”
Many Titusville residents consider Ivey — with his folksy humor and relentless glad-handing — to be fairly mainstream in this traditionally conservative county. But the sheriff doesn’t shy away from stating that he, too, considers himself a constitutional sheriff.
Three years ago, Ivey even got a tattoo on his left arm displaying the preamble of the Constitution, and he refers to himself as the “most politically incorrect sheriff” in the country.
After he was first elected in 2012, Ivey instituted what he calls the only "prison chain gang" in Florida. He also produces a weekly Facebook video called the "Wheel of Fugitive," featuring the spinning faces of wanted people. And he boasts that the Brevard County jail spends as little as is nutritionally possible on inmate meals — about 99 cents per day per inmate.
And here in northeastern Florida, some advocates worry that Trump’s agenda, combined with a sheriff’s historical reputation for law and order, will only worsen historical tensions between law enforcement agencies and some community members.
In suburban Jacksonville, many immigrants fled from one town in Clay County, Fla., this year after that county’s newly elected Republican sheriff, Darryl Daniels, reversed policy and announced that his deputies would also work closely with ICE, according to Indy Moran, a local social worker.
Daniels, the first African American sheriff in county history, has also been trying to burnish his law-and-order credentials by allowing his deputes to wear “jeans and boots” on Fridays.
Wearing a cowboy hat, Daniels told Jacksonville's WJXT television station that the look would strike fear in the criminals and pay "tribute to quieter times, when folks would recognize who the sheriff was."
“People are scared,” said Moran, who is Hispanic. “This is not Texas. There are a lot of farmers here, and if they want to wear that attire, that is fine. But if you are talking about agencies that provide law and order, I think it’s ridiculous and paints a clear picture of what they think and what they stand for.”
Daniels did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But Ivey said critics are overlooking the central message of the 2016 election.
Be it the president or their sheriff, he said, many Americans want leaders who “speak their mind.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the location of Clay County. It is in Florida.