Just what is a sheriff? What does a sheriff do? How is a sheriff’s duties different from a police officer’s? Why is sheriff an elected position? If such questions have been keeping you up at night, you’re in luck: here we reveal all.
The term sheriff derives from shire reeve–medieval English for tax collector. With connotations of the Sheriff of Nottingham or the Old West, sheriffs may conjure images of Andy Griffith in Mayberry, or–more recently–Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Arizona. But they are clearly not an anachronism: there are over 3,000 sheriff’s jurisdictions in the United States today. The first sheriff in America was chosen in Virginia in 1651, and the practice spread from there across the colonies.
The primary distinction between a sheriff (whose assistants are called deputies) and a police officer is one of method of selection and jurisdiction. Sheriffs are elected; many state constitutions–including Virginia’s–mandate an elected sheriff. Sheriffs are responsible for an entire county; their duties focus on prisons, prisoners, and the courts. Forty-eight states have sheriffs–all but Alaska (no counties) and Connecticut (no county governments).
Is the distinction important? Yes, according to the sheriffs. The National Sheriffs’ Association, which represents sheriffs nationwide, “strongly supports the concept of an elected office of sheriff,” according to its president:
“We don’t want anybody to have too much authority,” he says. “So as opposed to a sheriff being appointed by a mayor or city council and being beholden to that city council, we are beholden to the people. We see our bosses as the citizens that elect us.” However, this interpretation is inherently self-serving as there exists neither historical nor academic evidence to support the theory. At best, it appears to rationalize a more recent phenomenon of defiance by a few sheriffs.
Police, in contrast, are appointed by a city official, usually the mayor. They are charged with crime prevention within the city’s limits. Fairfax County has both; the police department was created in 1940 at the urging of the then-sheriff, who felt he could not handle criminal police work. Perspective: In the words of one policeman, “Police are at-will employees. You can’t really fire a sheriff.”
In Fairfax County, the sheriff’s core functions include operating the Adult Detention Center, providing security for the courthouse complex, and executing the process of civil law, such as serving subpoenas for civil court cases and other incidental duties, including delivering updated computer drives with voter information to chief election officers the day before an election. The Sheriff’s Office also has several programs through which it interacts with the community, including volunteer reserve sheriffs.
The Fairfax sheriff instituted a new program in 2016 called Diversion First, a procedure under which incarceration is not the default first remedy in cases of criminal behavior related to a mental health crisis. A sheriff can also wield unfettered discretion, as when the Fairfax sheriff decided to limit the office’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) relative to inmates before release.
After some jurisdictions declared themselves sanctuary cities in recent months, some defiant U.S. sheriffs have declared their jurisdictions de facto gun sanctuaries in mimicry of immigration advocates.
Nor are sheriffs shy about engaging in controversy. After some jurisdictions declared themselves sanctuary cities in recent months, a few defiant sheriffs have declared their jurisdictions to be gun sanctuaries, mimicking that determination elsewhere. Some sheriffs have also said that they would allow people deemed to be threats under red flag laws to retain their firearms. And where the legal age for gun ownership is 21, sheriffs in other jurisdictions rejected confiscation of arms for those below legal age. It is ironic that in assuming contrary policies, the effect is that law-enforcement officials are advocating breaking the law. That is, their actions convey that the rule of law does not apply to them.
Defiance has been reported mainly in the South and West, in states including Washington and New Mexico. In Oregon, organizers plan to put even more defiant “sanctuary ordinance” measures on county ballots in 2020 that will direct their officials to resist state gun laws that they believe to be unconstitutional.
However, the vast majority of sheriffs conduct themselves as professionals who do their jobs well. Still, accusations of racial profiling and excessive force are common, and there are often a few lawsuits pending for wrongful deaths. In Governing Magazine, April 2018, an article is titled, Why There Are So Many Bad Sheriffs, subtitled In a job with tons of power and practically no oversight from voters, law enforcement or politicians, corruption or simple bad behavior can be easy to get away with. To wit:
- Financial fraud. Sheriffs control many pots of money. In the case of a food allowance for inmates, there is little to stop them from skimming off the top. One Southern sheriff was caught and fined $1,000 on top of having to repay some $160,000.
- Breaking the law. In Tennessee a sheriff fired his third-in-command for blowing the whistle on the sheriff for selling electronic cigarettes to inmates. The deputy ultimately won a wrongful-dismissal suit and the sheriff was sentenced to 4 years. And remember Joe Arpaio? Before being convicted of criminal contempt in a case accusing him of racial profiling (and later pardoned by President Trump), he served six terms–then ran unsuccessfully for the US Senate in 2018. He also was forced to pay nearly $150 million to settle various suits brought against him.
- Little public interest. While ostensibly accountable to voters, the position of sheriff is rarely one of high visibility. Few have an interest in challenging an incumbent, and sometimes the office is actually passed down from father to son.
- Rare circumstances. Sheriffs must be prepared for the unexpected. Following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel faced criticism for failing to apprehend the shooter despite dozens of prior complaints, as well as the failure of armed deputies to enter the school during the shooting.
- Objectionable but not illegal. In Jackson County, Mich., all the members of the county commission, along with the chamber of commerce and other local officials, have called on Sheriff Steve Rand to resign due to reports that he has used racist, sexist, and homophobic language, as well as allegations that he discriminated against a disabled employee. Rand has apologized but refused to step down, and the governor has not removed him.
- Civil asset forfeiture. If sheriffs can make a property-seizure violation into a federal case, the Department of Justice will take a share but allow sheriffs to keep the bulk of the proceeds. This can be quite lucrative. In 2015, the Obama administration curbed such “equitable sharing,” but Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived it last July.
Sheriffs, then, have substantial authority. Sheriff elections are not marginal decisions. Continued instances of defiance and misconduct call into question whether the office of sheriff should remain an elective position or be subject directly to civilian authority.