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Thieves, speeders and the feds — Sheriff Rogers keeps his eye on them all

Elkhart County Sheriff Rogers is outspoken on many issues outside the traditional law enforcement realm of fighting crime, but he says it's part of his responsibilities, his oath to uphold the U.S. and Indiana constitutions.


Posted on May. 25, 2013 at 1:00 a.m.

He faced off with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, admonishing the agency for what he viewed as its harassment of a Middlebury dairy farmer and raw milk producer.

He testified in support of an Indiana Senate proposal earlier this year meant to prevent implementation of a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act that critics fear could lead to unfair detentions of U.S. citizens.

More recently, he addressed a Second Amendment rally in South Bend, speaking out against new gun-control measures, in favor of gun rights. (To read more on Rogers' thoughts, go to this story that was part of this reporting package.)

Elkhart County Sheriff Brad Rogers, a Republican elected to the post in 2010 with strong tea party backing, isn't afraid to wade into controversy, isn't afraid to air his views. Most notably, he sounds a cautionary, keep-the-feds-off-my-back message and suggests, if asked, that federal officials will grab for power that isn't theirs if left unchecked.

But isn't the law enforcement official just supposed to catch bad guys, investigate murders, maintain the Elkhart County jail, nab speeders? Why so vocal on all this other stuff? It's as if he's an activist, trying to mold public policy.

“I'm a leader. People who lead often sound off on things. Others sit back and do nothing,” Rogers says. He's seated in his office at the Elkhart County Sheriff's Department headquarters south of Elkhart, adjacent to the county jail.

Beyond that, he took an oath of office as sheriff and that oath, he maintains, obliges him to do more than just look for thieves. It gives him authority, responsibility even, to do much more — to safeguard the U.S. Constitution.

He pulls out a copy of the oath he took. It reads, in part, “I do solemnly affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the state of Indiana ...”

'HE'S A DISGRACE'

Still, Rogers' advocacy — specifically some of his remarks at the South Bend gun rally — rubs some the wrong way, even as it generates hurrahs from many others. At the April 28 rally, he said, to cheers, that he wouldn't enforce “any additional anti-gun laws,” citing what he says are Second Amendment protections.

“As far as I'm concerned, it's the sheriff's job to enforce the law and not pick and choose which laws he wants to enforce,” says Shari Mellin, head of the Elkhart County Democratic Party, speaking in a phone interview.

If there's some question over the constitutionality of a law, it's not for the sheriff to make the call and decide if it should be enforced, she says. It's up to lawmakers to change the law, the courts to pass judgment. Rogers' focus should be Elkhart County.

She thinks Rogers is pandering to a segment of the population that feels threatened by the federal government, worries that the federal government is out to get them. She personally doesn't see the federal government as a threat.

“I think he's trying to appeal to a certain segment of the population (for which) guns is the big issue,” Mellin says, calling him “a disgrace.” “It seems like he is trying to make a name for himself.”

Two newspapers outside Elkhart County, Rogers' turf, have even sounded critical messages, specifically on the sheriff's strong pro-gun rights comments. In editorials, both publications, the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel and the South Bend Tribune, honed in on Rogers' vow, coming amid heightened talk on the matter at the federal level, not to enforce any new gun laws.

“Civilization is in a sorry state when a representative of the law promises lawlessness and is cheered for it,” opined the News-Sentinel, alluding to the applause Rogers generated for his remarks.

'CAN'T COME PAST MY MAILBOX'

Whether you agree with Rogers or not, the Elkhart County sheriff certainly has a different approach than his immediate predecessor, Mike Books, who served two terms as sheriff, stepping down due to term limits. Books, at least in the latter part of his second term, certainly didn't delve into constitutional questions like Rogers does. Books' public comments, by and large, centered on the nuts and bolts of running the sheriff's department, local crime, jail operations.

Randy Yohn, Elkhart County sheriff from 1987 to 1994 and now a member of the Elkhart County Council, never took stands like Rogers. He says the sorts of questions Rogers addresses — overreach of federal government, authority of local government — weren't burning issues during his time in the post.

Whatever the case, Yohn, a Republican, expresses a measure of support for Rogers.

“I do think the federal government has the tendency to overreach its bounds,” Yohn says, and should be checked from time to time. “He's drawn some lines in the sand and I think he's been supported generally by the public.”

Mary Nisly, chairwoman of the Elkhart County Republican Party, applauds Rogers and says the GOP is on board with him. She, too, shares his guardedness toward federal government.

“The federal government is overstepping their boundaries,” Nisly says. “I always say they can't come past my mailbox.”

THE CATALYST: KATRINA GUN SEIZURES

Rogers, a 26-year veteran of the sheriff's department, wasn't always so passionate about questions of federal overreach, the power of the U.S. Constitution. After the confiscation of guns by police following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, that changed.

“Hurricane Katrina was probably the biggest catalyst because they went from house to house and seized guns during a crisis when actually the people could have used their guns to help defend themselves during that crisis,” he says.

The National Rifle Association decried the seizures, even filed a suit over the matter that was later settled. New Orleans officials, for their part, maintained that the initiative was aimed at stolen guns and guns in abandoned homes, to keep them from getting into the wrong hands, according to the Associated Press.

Rogers also senses that personal freedoms, more and more, are falling by the wayside. “Some of that is ... self-imposed,” he says. “We the people have let it get that way. Some of this is because we want some security, the government to take care of us.”

He emphasizes that he dedicates the overwhelming majority of his time to traditional duties — criminal matters, management of the jail, administration. “We've solved murders, we've caught bad guys, caught burglars. We're doing some great things inside the jail with our programming in reducing recidivism,” he says.

But to ignore what he sees as incursions against the U.S. or Indiana constitutions would be a dereliction of his duties, as he tells it. He'd be ignoring his oath of office. It'd be irresponsible.

“The Constitution is not something the government has given us. It's a guarantee that they're not going to take those rights away,” he says. “So any public servant would be derelict in their duty if they saw encroachments and usurpations of the Constitution (that) they had control over and didn't step forward to sound off.”

Beyond constitutional issues, gun control bears on the security of Elkhart County. Rogers says. If you take guns away from the citizens or make it harder for them to get them, he fears, it gives the bad guys the upper hand. Elkhart County could turn into Chicago, he worries, with restrictive gun laws that hamstring legal ownership and out-of-control gun violence from criminals who ignore the laws.

“The point is, gun restrictions don't keep guns out of the hands of criminals. It keeps them out of the hands of law-abiding citizens,” he says. “Because criminals are criminals. They're not going to look at a gun-free zone sign and say, 'Oh I can't go in there.'”

WHAT's a sheriff's proper role?

Rogers is hardly the only U.S. sheriff to speak his mind, nor is he the only law enforcement official to cite his oath to uphold the Constitution as the basis for involvement on issues outside the realm of crooks, murderers and speeders. He's a leader in the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, a group made up of law enforcement officials from across the country. The CSPOA, according to its website, was formed, in part, to convey the importance of the constitutional rights of the public “with an emphasis on state sovereignty and local autonomy.”

Likewise, Rogers' outspokenness is part of a growing national debate about balancing federal government power, local autonomy and personal liberties.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, a Montgomery, Ala.-based civil rights group, eyes the CSPOA and its message with a strong dose of skepticism and warns of the group's motives. The SPLC profiled CSPOA Executive Director Richard Mack in a report late last year, suggesting he's helping move ideas from the “fringes of the radical right” into the mainstream conservative movement.

Mack may be trying to construct “a generation of sheriffs whose politics are infused with radical-right views and whose understanding of the office of sheriff extends far beyond serving court papers, running local jails and policing areas outside the city limits,” says the SPLC report. “What Mack seems to want is a nation of county sheriffs who believe the government is the enemy.”

Meanwhile, University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett, asked about the role of sheriffs in upholding the constitution, thinks any citizen “may and should ask whether laws and policies are constitutional.”

While it's “the court's interpretation of the Constitution that controls” in the context of a court case, Garnett wrote in an email, “it is not the case that only courts get to engage in constitutional interpretation.”

He noted the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that says federal marriage benefits don't apply to same-sex married couples. The Obama administration has deemed the law unconstitutional, he wrote, “even though the Supreme Court has not yet said that it is.”

The issue is germane in Rogers' case, particularly as it applies to the gun control debate.

Rogers, while empowered via his oath of office with the authority to uphold the Constitution, maintains that he isn't taking on the role of judge. Yet he made the vow at the South Bend gun rally not to enforce new gun legislation because, as he sees it, it would be unconstitutional, violate the Second Amendment.

“Any legislation that tries to control the Second Amendment is unconstitutional,” Rogers said at the rally.

'I'M JUST ONE PERSON'

Rogers rebuffs, though doesn't completely dismiss, talk of someday running for another office.

“I'm not saying I won't some day, but my commitment is to be sheriff and serve the community in this way,” he says. “I have no desire to do anything else at this point.”

Rather, his involvement in a wide array of issues is just part and parcel of being sheriff, of keeping his end of the bargain after being elected to the post. As he describes it, he took an oath to uphold the Constitution and he intends to keep it.

“I'm just one person. I'm not delusional, I'm not going to change the world,” he says. “In my position as sheriff, I have an oath of office to keep and I have tasks to do as sheriff.”



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