Politics & Other Mistakes: Bunglers with badges

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I’m not saying all county sheriffs in Maine are incompetent extremists. Just that lots of them are.

Maine elects its sheriffs because the state Constitution requires it, even though common sense says they’re no longer necessary. State and local cops could do the sheriffs’ job more effectively and economically. Plus, competent police outfits don’t hand out badges and guns to bozos whose only law-enforcement qualification is bamboozling enough voters to win an election.

Speaking of unqualified, in 2012, former Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith gave a local doctor a card stating he was an officer, even though he didn’t meet the requirements. The doc left a loaded handgun he wasn’t licensed to carry in a department store dressing room, leading to criminal charges. Meanwhile, Smith threatened to sue the state court system for failing to schedule as many trial dates as he wanted. In 2014, Smith got sued himself by 17 former employees for invasion of privacy, negligence, and emotional distress.

In 2015, Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce’s deputies decided it would be a good idea to require female attorneys to remove their bras before they could meet with their clients at the jail. In 2017, Oxford County Sheriff Wayne Gallant was forced to resign after allegations of sexual harassment. In 2020, York County Sheriff Bill King banned face masks at the jail, leading to a major outbreak of COVID-19.

Then there’s Franklin County Sheriff Scott Nichols, a libertarian-leaning Republican with some odd ideas about his rights and responsibilities. Nichols is currently running for a third term against independent Edward Hastings, a Farmington police sergeant.

Nichols’ campaign signs carry a reproduction of the U.S. Constitution’s opening line, “We the People,” and he refers to his supporters as the “Constitution Crew.” On the surface, there doesn’t appear to be anything ominous about that. Unless you can hear the dog whistles.

There exists a breed of right-wing kook who believes that because sheriffs are the only law-enforcement entity mentioned in the Constitution, their authority exceeds that of all other government officials. They claim it doesn’t matter what the governor, the Legislature or the courts do; sheriffs decide the law.

Nichols exemplifies this bonkers legal interpretation. When Democratic Gov. Janet Mills imposed restrictions on travel and commerce last spring to deal with the pandemic, Nichols was one of a handful of sheriffs nationwide to refuse to enforce the new rules. “This is not Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia,” he posted on Facebook. “We will not be setting up a Police State. PERIOD.”

That got the attention of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group that claims county sheriffs are the “last hope” for staving off tyranny. The Maine Beacon, a liberal blog, reported on Oct. 8 that Nichols had been honored by the association as its “Sheriff of the Year.” Nichols traveled to Liberty University in Virginia last month to collect his plaque.

The association is closely linked to the so-called “patriot” movement that opposes immigration, Black Lives Matter, gun control, and any other government intervention.  According to the Beacon, the association’s founder, Richard Mack, himself a former sheriff, warned the audience at the awards gathering, “There are so many traitors in our midst, for instance, the ‘COVID dictator governors,’ and we must make them irrelevant.”

Nichols grinned (I can tell because in the photo accompanying the Beacon story, he’s not wearing a mask), shook Mack’s hand, and accepted his award. He also seems to have accepted Mack’s warped worldview. On his campaign Facebook page, he promises to protect Franklin County from unspecified “challenges, especially those that threaten your civil liberties.”

I don’t think Nichols is talking about cops shooting unarmed Black men. Asked by the Daily Bulldog for his opinion of Black Lives Matter, he replied, “I support any group’s right to freedom of speech regardless of its content.”

Which misses the point. Deliberately.

Nichols comes from a long line of Maine sheriffs inclined to overinflate their authority.

Deflate the police.

If I don’t respond to emails sent to [email protected], try the Franklin County Detention Center.

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