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Criminal Justice

California Attorney General Says Riverside Sheriff's Defense Of Extremist Oath Keepers Is 'Disturbing'

Rob Bonta looks straight at the camera, his mouth slightly open, teeth exposed. He wears a white shirt, blue tie with gray diagonal strips, and grey jacket. Behind him is a purple orchid to the viewer's left and pink and purple flowers to the viewer's right. Also behind him is a cabinet with one shelf filled with books another shelf with books and knicknacks, and another one with knicknacks.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta.
(Screenshot of press conference
/
YouTube)
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California Attorney General Rob Bonta says Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco’s one-time membership in and continuing defense of the far-right Oath Keepers group is “disturbing” and under review by his office.

“Personally, for me, it’s disturbing and it's concerning,” the attorney general told us in an interview after attending an anti-hate roundtable Wednesday with local leaders at Riverside City Hall.

It’s unclear if the topic came up at the meeting; Bonta said he had “just received” the information about Bianco. The review “may or may not lead to an investigation,” he said.

Bianco told us last month that he joined the extremist group in 2014 for a year while he was still a lieutenant in the department. While he denounced participation by a number of the group’s members in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the sheriff insisted the Oath Keepers group is not a threat to democracy.

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Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco poses for a portrait with an American flag in the background
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco
(Riverside Sheriff's Department)

“Except for a few fringe people, that’s not really what they stand for,” Bianco said. “They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”

Experts strongly disagree.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the Oath Keepers “one of the largest far-right anti-government groups in the U.S. today.” George Washington University’s Program on Extremism describes the group as a “domestic violent extremist organization.”

‘How Deep Does It Go?’

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Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent and expert in homegrown violent extremism, said an investigation by the state’s attorney general is in order to examine how Bianco’s defense of the Oath Keepers is affecting his department — the fourth largest sheriff’s agency in the country.

“Is it a problem, how deep does it go, is it affecting policies, is it affecting behaviors?” he said.

“Organizations mirror their leadership,” said Southers, who teaches at USC’s Price School of Public Policy.

Bianco’s defense of the group “overtly sends a message to the people that are under his command” that it’s okay to be a member, Southers said. “We already know we have a challenge of law enforcement being recruited by Oath Keepers in particular.”

There are different factions of the Oath Keepers, with some more anti-government than others, Southers said, but he argued that doesn’t excuse the sheriff’s defense of the group.

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“To be currently serving in a law enforcement position and to defend a group that participated in an insurrection where officers were killed at the United States Capitol, there is no justification for that,” he said.

Southers said it would be a “huge conflict of interest” if Bianco’s department had to respond to any problems with the Oath Keepers in Riverside.

‘We Are Owed An Explanation’

Palm Springs Mayor Christy Holstege and a member of the city council sent a letter to Bonta on Oct. 14 asking for an investigation into Bianco and his department.

“Revelations regarding Chad Bianco’s association with and membership in the Oath Keepers and the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association place him even more explicitly in the ranks of sheriffs who proudly defy state and federal laws, driven often by racially-charged values and conspiracy theories,” they wrote.

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The Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association subscribes to the idea that federal and state authorities are subordinate to a local sheriff’s authority. “The law enforcement powers held by the sheriff supersede those of any agent, officer, elected official or employee from any level of government when in the jurisdiction of the county,” the group’s website states.

The Oct. 14 letter, which also addresses use of force and the treatment of jail inmates, was signed additionally by a councilmember from Palm Desert and one from Coachella.

“We are owed an explanation,” Holstege told us. “Does he align with those views? Why was he involved in an anti-government militia group? Why is he not denouncing them now?”

Holstege said Bianco’s defense of the Oath Keepers “disqualifies” him from being sheriff.

She also pointed to the sheriff’s statements during the pandemic as evidence of his anti-government views. Bianco has described vaccine mandates as “tyrannical government overreach” and said Gov. Newsom had a “dictatorial attitude” toward California residents when he threatened to withhold state funding to counties that did not comply with pandemic stay-at-home orders.

Bianco has described himself as the “last line of defense” against tyranny.

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