Despite the language of the Declaration of Independence asserting that “in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,” the United States continues to recognize some vestiges of that connection in contemporary governmental organization.
In England, a shire was an administrative jurisdiction of governance subject to an earl, a bishop, and the shire reeve. In the tale of Robin Hood, the good people of Nottinghamshire were oppressed by onerous taxes levied by the earl and collected by the shire reeve (sheriff, as the term became in transition to the new world). Robin Hood and his band of merry men sought to deliver some justice by redefining the distribution of wealth from the rich to the poor. The county jurisdiction in the United States is the analog of England’s shire, retaining a sheriff as a county official.
In 1634, Virginia was divided into eight shires and in 1651, by vote of local land owners, William Waters (who later became governor) was elected to the office of shire reeve, inaugurating a democratic process for the selection of sheriff. For the most part, sheriffs in the United States functioned as the chief law enforcement officers of their counties, but their roles and responsibilities evolved, particularly as urban centers grew. Thus, in Loudoun County, the sheriff remains the chief law enforcement officer, while in its neighboring county, Fairfax, both a county police department and a sheriff’s office co-exist. This phenomenon results directly from population growth and is common. Even New York City has a sheriff. Police department chiefs are selected by county governing boards, while selection of sheriffs remains an electoral event.
Both by history and evolution, the office of sheriff continues to maintain a functional relationship with the civil and criminal aspects of the judicial system. As their historic counterparts did, sheriffs execute seizures of property, service of process, judicial sales, serve as courthouse security, and, in many jurisdictions, oversee the local jails or prisons. They are also responsible for transporting offenders to and from court hearings.
Traditionally, the term office is used in conjunction with sheriff as a distinction representing its electoral nature, while department more appropriately describes a government agency. Notwithstanding such fine point, however, the Fairfax sheriff’s office is part of the county’s $4.29 billion budget generated by tax levy. For 2019, the total budget for sheriff is $74.7 million, of which some $16.7 million is covered by state appropriation, and the office employs just over 600 people to discharge its responsibilities.
It’s probably true that inertia is the major reason for the existence of two policing agencies in Fairfax and other jurisdictions. Nor is there any serious discussion, either academic or professional, evaluating the merits of integrating the two functions into a single administration. In a few states, such as Alabama, incumbent sheriffs deposed in elections have made succession politically and financially difficult. In New Mexico and Washington, some sheriffs have publicly declared their determination not to enforce gun control statutes, claiming that their allegiance rests upon popular election mandates and adherence to the Second Amendment. In other jurisdictions, conflict has developed concerning coordination or cooperation with federal immigration agencies. These instances manifest one dimension of independently elected police administration.
The Fairfax family name traces its origin to meaning “fair-haired,” connoting special favor. That seems appropriate for the peaceful existence of two distinct law enforcement agencies in the county.