Riverside Sheriff Chad Bianco Once Was An Oath Keeper, Defends The Extremist Group
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco told LAist that he joined the extremist group Oath Keepers in 2014 for a year while he was still a lieutenant in the department. While he denounced participation by some of the group’s members in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the sheriff insisted the Oath Keepers is not a threat to democracy.
“Except for a few fringe people, that’s not really what they stand for,” he said in an interview with LAist Monday. “They certainly don’t promote violence and government overthrow. They stand for protecting the Constitution.”
Bianco downplayed his membership in the group, saying he never attended any meetings and that the extent of his knowledge is limited to what he has read on its website.
Experts on extremism strongly disagree with Bianco’s characterization of the organization.
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.”
In its August indictment charging 17 Oath Keepers with conspiracy in connection with Jan. 6, the U.S. Department of Justice said some of the group’s members “are associated with militias” and some believe the U.S. government “has been co-opted by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights.”
The Oath Keepers is "a Second Amendment insurrectionist group,” said Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center of the Study of Hate and Extremism. “It doesn't get simpler than that."
A ‘Crisis’ For The Sheriff’s Department?
“Second Amendment insurrectionists believe they have a right to armed rebellion whenever they … believe the government is tyrannical,” Levin said. “For [Bianco] to be defending the organization today when he is in the position of enforcing the law is extremely problematic.”
This represents a “crisis” for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, Levin maintained.
Bianco bristled at the criticism. “If you love America, if you’re proud to be an American and you support the Constitution, you are labeled as an extremist,” he said. “People want to make a big deal out of something that is not. There is nothing wrong or sinister with me joining.”
Levin did note that, “in the sheriff’s defense, the Oath Keepers years ago were less radical, they were less confrontational."
Bianco also expressed frustration that the Oath Keepers is being portrayed as “far right-wing," adding, “that’s the political toxic environment that we are in."
While maintaining that “what happened at the Capitol was completely wrong,” the sheriff said it’s unfair to tar the Oath Keepers as supporting the insurrection “because one, two, three, 10, 15, 20 people of an entire organization do something bad.”
The Oath Keepers website says it is a "non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to 'defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.'"
Bianco, who was elected in 2018, is the top law enforcement official in Riverside County and commands a force of roughly 3,600 deputies. Riverside is California’s fourth most populous county, with nearly 2.5 million residents.
Questions about the sheriff’s affiliation arose after the hacker group Anonymous announced a massive data breach on Sept. 13 of Epik, which provides Internet services to many right-wing groups. Data provided to LAist shows Bianco’s name was on a list of people who are or were at one time members of the Oath Keepers.
‘I Don’t Even Remember Joining’
“I don’t even remember joining,” Bianco said. He said he needed to look back at his emails to remind himself that he joined the organization sometime around February 2014 when he was a sheriff’s lieutenant. Bianco said he paid for one year’s worth of dues on his credit card and received a copy of the U.S. Constitution as a gift.
While noting that he attended no meetings during his one year as a member, the sheriff said, “I don’t even know if they have meetings."
Levin said some chapters are more radical than others. Bianco did not say if he was a member of a particular chapter.
Federal authorities have been concerned for years about extremist sentiment in law enforcement. An April ABC News investigation found “at least 52 active or retired military, law enforcement, or government service employees” among those arrested in connection with the Capitol insurrection.
False stories about the presidential election being stolen from Donald Trump in favor of Joe Biden fueled the Jan. 6 attack. When asked whether he believes Biden’s win was fraudulent, Bianco said, “Do I know there is election fraud? Yes I do, and anybody that says there isn't is naive or politically motivated. Do I know whether or not there was enough of it to affect the outcome? That I do not know.”
A Strong Appeal To Law Enforcement
Bianco said he doesn’t recall how he landed on the Oath Keepers website, but he liked how it appealed to law enforcement and members of the military.
The Oath Keepers claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, although the center believes the number is much lower.
Bianco said he doesn’t know if any members of his department belong to the Oath Keepers.
The sheriff said his frustration with the state of political dialogue came to a head a few weeks ago when he shut down his Twitter account. “It’s completely toxic,” he said. “It’s horrible. And it was wasting too much of my time.”
Bianco No Stranger To Controversy
Bianco is no stranger to controversy.
In December, he 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.
Earlier this month, the sheriff made a series of false or misleading statements about COVID-19 and vaccines. Vowing not to enforce any vaccine mandate for his deputies, Bianco called mandates “tyrannical government overreach” and described himself as the “last line of defense” against such actions.
In addition to the Oath Keepers, Bianco said he’s a supporter of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which 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 phenomenon of the ‘constitutional sheriffs’ movement is deeply troubling and problematic,” according to Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center and editor of the group’s Intelligence Report, which focused on the movement in its Summer 2016 issue.
“These men and women are being told by extremist leaders that they have the right to decide what laws they want to enforce, and can keep federal law enforcement agents out of their counties,” Potok said on SPLC’s website. “That is utterly untrue, the very opposite of constitutional, and it in fact encourages sheriffs and their deputies to defy the law of the land.”