Louisa County Sheriff Donald Lowe clarified his position this week about a militia group that said it was working with him.
Members of the Louisa militia said in an Oct. 15 article in The Central Virginian that they derive their status as a “constitutional militia” from their relationship with local law enforcement.
Lowe said the connection his office has to the militia is that they talk with each other.
“The militia is not a part of the sheriff’s office,” Lowe said. “They are their own entity and they have the right to form their own group. I protect the constitutional rights of everyone and it doesn’t necessarily mean I agree or disagree with all of their opinions. My personal opinions are not relevant.”
He emphasized his support for constitutional rights, including the Second Amendment, which is the one that mentions militias and the right to bear arms.
“They’ve been very responsive,” Lowe said of the militia. “That’s good, to have that open line of communication. They’ll call me before they do anything. I think the word militia does fire everybody up. Even if they changed their name to something like the ‘Defenders of the Constitution - Louisa Chapter,’ it really wouldn’t make a difference. But they have an open dialogue with me, and that benefits everybody.”
The sheriff said it would be “dangerous” for him not to maintain communication with the militia or another group like it that organizes and is armed.
Lowe said he doesn’t want the community to misconstrue a comment by a militia member that he asked the group to keep an eye on events during the March for Unity in July. The march was organized to raise awareness of racial injustice in Louisa and elsewhere in the country.
“They called and asked if they could attend even though they had a right to be there,” he said. “I asked them to ‘keep your eyes and ears open and if you see trouble brewing, let me know.’ I would say the same thing to any citizen or group.”
Juanita Jo Matkins, one of the March for Unity’s organizers, said the sheriff’s office advised her group at the time to avoid interacting with militia members and others who were present to monitor the march or to counter-protest the event. The Louisa Town Police also helped her group plan the event.
“We knew what had happened in other towns and we didn’t want anything like that to happen in Louisa,” Matkins said. “I was very pleased with the response of [people who participated in the march].
“I object to the inference there was a danger to the businesses,” she said, citing a comment by militia President Jack Burkett in the Oct. 15 CV article. “I think people are paying too much attention to national news and not enough to what’s local. The people who came to the march were almost entirely Louisa County residents. This is a community where we still know each other, and we should remember that.”
Burkett clarified this week that he heard the comment from a business owner about the potential for vandalism during the march, not beforehand. Lowe said he was not aware of anyone calling his office to voice this concern.
Matkins expressed surprise that anyone thinks the sheriff’s office needs help from a militia. It makes more sense, she said, for community members to work with the sheriff to help him add diversity to his staff. This was one of the issues raised at the march.
The line of communication Lowe has with the militia includes helping the group vet people who want to join. The sheriff’s office does not conduct a criminal history check, but looks at public and local records to make sure no one with “extremist” views gets involved.
“The people I have seen in this particular group are all law-abiding, responsible and respected members of our community,” he said.
“People have strong beliefs and we just have to find a way to communicate without calling each other names, listen to understand and put the anger aside,” the sheriff said. “Nothing will be accomplished if people refuse to, or cannot respect another person’s opinion or beliefs. The moment a person is put on the defensive is the precise moment any hope of accomplishment vanishes. You have to be willing to try.”
Lowe said he has asked militia members to not carry visible weapons near polling places during the election, to avoid doing anything that might intimidate voters.
“They understood and agreed,” he said. “The sheriff’s office will have extra deputies monitoring polling sites to ensure there are no problems during this election.”