Oregon Militants Try To Recruit A ‘Constitutional’ Sheriff From Neighboring County, But Fail
Harney County Sheriff David Ward addresses the community in Burns.Credit: Associated Press/Rick Browner
January 15, 2016

[Cross-posted at Hatewatch.]

Since so much of their extremist worldview hinges on the idea that the county sheriff is the highest authority in the land, the “constitutionalists” who seized the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Ore., last week have been extremely vocal about their displeasure with Sheriff David Ward of Harney County.

Ward, they say, has failed in his “constitutional duty” to defend ranchers in his county against the federal government. It’s widely believed the sheriff is one of the chief targets of the “citizens grand jury” the Ammon Bundy-led invaders plan to convene soon.

So the militiamen recently turned to a sheriff they believed to be more sympathetic to their cause: Glenn Palmer, the sheriff of Grant County, which is adjacent to Harney County directly to the north.

According to Palmer, the men showed up in the town of John Day and arranged a meeting at a local restaurant. In the end, they failed to get what they came for –– Palmer’s assistance.

“I had no idea who I was meeting with when we had lunch yesterday,” he said. “I walked in, I realized who they were and I sat and listened to them. ... They actually wanted me to come down there and make a stand, and I said, ‘not without the sheriff’s blessing.’”

The men had reason to believe that Palmer would be sympathetic to their cause. Palmer calls himself a “constitutional sheriff” and is not only a member in good standing of the far-right Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), but was named that organization’s “lawman of the year” in 2012. He also traveled to Washington, D.C., in 2014 to participate in a CSPOA-led meeting with two U.S. senators about immigration.

Palmer’s claim to fame among their ranks lies in his feud with the U.S. Forest Service over policing powers in Grant County. Palmer told USFS officials that their rangers only had jurisdiction in the federal building in John Day.

And while the sheriff was unwilling to go to Harney County to help bolster the Bundys’ cause, Palmer told the East Oregonian that while he has “a pretty good working relationship” with the neighboring sheriff, he was also unwilling to go to Burns to support Sheriff Ward.

“About the only thing (Ward) really told me is I’m welcome to come down there if I would shame and humiliate them into giving up and I said, ‘No, I won’t do that,”’ Palmer said. “I’m not in the business of denouncing or shaming or humiliating anybody.”

Palmer described the participants in the takeover as “patriots,” and generally spoke of the occupation in glowing terms: “I think it’s brought some things to light that might not have otherwise got the attention that they did. … I do believe that the resolution and solution to the way this is going to be handled, if it’s handled properly, could have a long-lasting effect on our county as well.”

He was also clear in his view that such an outcome would require the government to make concessions.

“I believe the government is going to have to concede to something,” he said. “I don’t think these guys are going to give up without knowing that they’ve done something that benefits the people of our country or our region.”

CSPOA president Richard Mack, who participated in the rally in Burns supporting two local ranchers whose imminent imprisonment served as the Bundys’ excuse for the takeover later that day, initially backed away from the protest, saying the “CSPOA does not support or condone the occupation.”

But in a video released earlier this week, Mack told right-wing interviewer Joshua Cook that while he disagreed with the takeover tactically, he fully supported the ideology behind it, explaining that it was a logical response to federal “tyranny.”

“The media that wants to label Ammon Bundy as a nut and extremist, that is a lie,” he said. "I don’t agree with what Ammon’s doing, I’ve told Ammon so. But Ammon Bundy is a friend of mine; he is a good man, he is a good person. Anybody who knows him, they’ll tell you the same.”

Mack not only excoriated David Ward in the interview – saying “the sheriff of Harney County should have stopped this”– he called for sheriffs around the country to begin arresting federal officials, who he claimed were just as guilty of arson: “Every sheriff now, in this country, needs to start filing charges against federal officials who do the same thing, and charge those people with domestic terrorism and arson and put them in prison, just as they did the Hammonds.”

For his part, Ward has been clear and outspoken about the antigovernment militiamen who have invaded his county, telling them repeatedly that they need to pack up and “go home.”

Ward recently excoriated the Bundy group and other militiamen for the reports of intimidating and threatening behavior that have beset residents of Burns since even before the standoff got under way. According to Ward, some federal employees have been harassed in town while grocery shopping or running errands, while others have reported vehicles following them and parking outside their homes.

"The people on the refuge – and those who they have called to our community – obviously have no consideration for the wishes or needs of the people of Harney County," Ward said. "If they did, they, too, would work to bring this situation to a peaceful close."

Ward, who has weathered death threats from the militiamen’s supporters, has received the official support of the Western States Sheriffs Association, which noted in its press release that “the WSSA does not support efforts of any individual or groups who utilize intimidation, threats or fear in order to further an agenda.”

He also has broad support in Harney County, where local crowds gathered to discuss the standoff have made overwhelmingly clear their support for his tough approach to the militiamen. “This county is a united family and we don’t need people to come here from someplace else and tell us how to live our lives,” Ward told one community gathering. They gave him a standing ovation.

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