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Missoula Sheriff drops Oath Keeper affiliated training

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The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office canceled two upcoming training sessions for detention facility staff that had featured a self-described Oath Keeper and "constitutional sheriff" as the trainer.

Missoula police, city officials agree not to hire controversial training group going forward

In an email on Monday to the Missoulian, Missoula County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Jeannette Smith said Missoula will no longer hold two sessions scheduled for May 31 and September 19 with Richard “Rick” Whitehead. The decision came after Reuters published a story on May 6 focused on U.S. police trainers with far-right ties instructing hundreds of law enforcement officers in the country. The story highlighted Whitehead, an Idaho-based police training consultant. 

In February, the Missoula Police Department terminated its relationship with a training group that advocates for police violence. Killology Research Group, led by former Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, held two police training sessions for Missoula officers.

During a failed 2020 campaign for the sheriff’s office in Kootenai County, Idaho, Whitehead handed out cards where he self-identified as an Oath Keeper, Reuters reported. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, members of the Oath Keepers hold anti-government beliefs and laud themselves as defenders of the Constitution.  Whitehead also told Reuters he was an Oath Keeper in 2016 and 2017. 

Whitehead’s website touts his long career in law enforcement. He developed his training and consulting firm in 1995, and said in an interview that he spends 20 to 25 weeks per year traveling across the country, training law enforcement personnel. 

In an October 2019 interview posted on YouTube, an interviewer asks Whitehead how important the Constitution is and how to hold law enforcement to the Constitution. Whitehead responds saying the sheriff's office is a constitutional office. If elected, he adds he and a sheriff in a nearby county "are like-minded and would be two constitutional sheriffs on this end of the state.”

In a separate March 2020 interview on a YouTube channel titled “Church and State: Christian Political Talk Show,” Whitehead says he views himself as a “10th Amendment constitutionalist," explaining this means he thinks states should be taking power back from the federal government.

“I think it starts at the local level to start exerting that control and to take that back, that it belongs to the states,” Whitehead says in the interview.

When asked if Whitehead’s values reflect that of the Missoula sheriff’s office, Smith did not answer. 

“Missoula County Detention Facility personnel have attended trainings offered by Richard Whitehead & Associates LLC following a program change in July 2021,” Smith said in an email. “In light of the recent article, Missoula County Detention Facility will no longer attend training presented by Richard Whitehead & Associates LLC.”

Whitehead posted twice in September 2021 on his Facebook page about visits and trainings in Missoula. He also posted in April and May of 2021 welcoming the Missoula Detention Facility to his Officer in Training model, which he also refers to as the “common sense model.”

Smith confirmed the trainings were only for jail staff — no sheriff's deputies attended. 

Detention facility staff attended and reviewed the sessions to ensure they met curriculum standards, she added. Whitehead's firm was approved by the Montana Public Safety Officer Standards & Training (POST) and qualified for the council's credits. 

The total amount the county paid to Whitehead's firm to date is $16,005.63. 

Multiple trainings 

Social media posts by Whitehead also mention doing trainings in Kalispell and Flathead County.

According to emails obtained by Reuters, a medic in Bonner County, David Ramsey, reported Whitehead following an April 2020 training for paramedics. In the trainings, Ramsey said Whitehead dismissed the pandemic as a joke and labeled COVID-19 controls as unconstitutional. He also made fun of women and showed a photo of a police car with an LGBTQ+ flag printed on it, and then, according to Ramsey’s email, asked the class “What’s next? We have to have a Muslim flag to satisfy the goat f‑‑‑ers?”

Whitehead said he didn’t make a comment about a “Muslim flag,” but stood by his opinion that having pride flags on law enforcement vehicles creates a “‘slippery slope’ that drags law enforcement officers away from their mission of fighting crime,” the Reuters story states.

In a statement response to the article posted on his website, Whitehead says the article refuses to give context to his platform and attempts to paint “law enforcement as extremist in need of federal intervention.”

He also defends taking an oath.

“Yes, I believe in our country's founding documents, and on three occasions throughout my career, I have taken an oath to defend our Constitution,” Whitehead says. “I have never rescinded that oath. What does it say about the state of our nation when believing in (its) Constitution has you deemed an extremist?”

Multiple constitutional sheriff organizations have been actively recruiting law enforcement officers over the past two years. Protect America Now, run by Arizona sheriff Mark Lamb, and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, headed by former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack, are the two most prominent organizations in the movement.

Those groups have extended their reach into Montana. Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter is listed as a member on the Protect America Now website. He has appeared on a podcast with Mack where the two discussed methods for spreading constitutional messaging in schools and Mack invited Slaughter to a CSPOA event.

Current Lake County Sheriff candidate Corey White has also publicly acknowledged his membership in Mack’s CSPOA. 

Long history

Travis McAdam with the Montana Human Rights Action Network has a different take on the influence of constitutional sheriff ideology, a movement he has been researching for the past two years.

“It really centers around this idea that county sheriffs are the highest legitimate law officers in the county,” McAdam said during a webinar Tuesday.

Constitutional sheriffs, McAdam explained, believe they have the authority to determine which laws are and are not enforced in their counties. McAdam said the Constitution actually bestows that authority upon the Supreme Court, not county sheriffs.

McAdam traced the underpinnings of constitutional sheriff ideology back to white supremacist extremism of the 1970s.

Constitutional sheriffs rest their arguments on theories like county supremacy and sheriff supremacy, which originated from a movement known as Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. The white nationalist Posse Comitatus movement — Latin for “the power of the county” — was known for combining racism, antisemitism and paramilitary organizing, according to the Montana Human Rights Action Network.

McAdam said the movement advocated for the use of force to combat an overarching one-world government and considered sheriffs the key to their resistance.

The danger of constitutional sheriffs, according to McAdam, comes from using the positive connotation of the Constitution to justify an overreach of power on the part of local law enforcement. 

“Having a sitting sheriff promoting these ideas is really a way that helps normalize these ideas that are rooted in hardcore white nationalism and anti-government ideology,” McAdam said. 

Since 2020, McAdam said, the number of constitutional sheriffs has been on the rise. COVID-19 health rules spurred buy-in to the constitutional sheriff cause.

“The pandemic created these opportunities for anti-government activists to go into and try to persuade local sheriffs that they have these superpowers,” said McAdam, "that they didn’t have to follow these health directives and these health protocols that were coming out." 

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