The office of the county sheriff has now entered its second millennium, having originated in the late tenth century. But, despite its long history and the vital role it continues to play in the administration of justice, very little empirical research has been conducted regarding this unique general-service county-level policing organization in the United States or the numerous other common-law nations that have inherited it. It is primarily, however, in the United States where the county sheriff has shown the most staying power and ability to remain relevant in the twenty-first century.
Given that the county is the political level at which justice is most often administered in the United States, the county sheriff plays a complex and pivotal role, providing court security, process service (both civil and criminal), management of the county jail, general police services, reactive and proactive law enforcement, and numerous other services not generally provided by other police agencies.
Despite the prediction by some observers that this ancient policing agency would soon fall into dormancy, especially as the incorporated areas of most counties continue to increase in size, it remains a vibrant and vital part of modern policing in the majority of states across America. As an open and nonmilitarized model of policing, the county sheriff’s office stands well situated, both organizationally and in terms of inherent service style, to embrace community-oriented policing.
Because the office of the county sheriff has its origins in the shires of England, it is important to understand the etymology of the term, which sheds light on the formation and evolution of this important modern-day American police agency. The progenitor of the ancient English sheriff was first known as a “reeve,” the locally elected conservator of the King’s peace within a shire, the equivalent of an American county; the term “shire reeve” later evolved to become the word sheriff, the term we recognize today. Shortly after the Norman invasion of 1066, the office was removed from local elective control and placed under the centralized authority of the national government, as an appointive office, changing fundamentally the relationship between the sheriff and the citizens of the shire.
Researchers have argued that it was the removal of the sheriff from its local origins and control to a distant national office that eventually led to the demise of the English sheriff’s office (now the ceremonial office of the high sheriff) as a functional policing entity; today it is little more than an ornamental historical artifact of
British government, serving no substantive policing function. By contrast, in the United States the sheriff’s office, as a result of its local elective nature, remains a vitally active county-level component within the contemporary criminal justice system.
By the mid-1600s, the English sheriff’s model and its inherent multiple policing functions had been imported to the burgeoning American colonies with little change, save the fact that it was eventually reconstituted in the colonies as an elective office. In the United States today, there exist approximately 3,100 sheriffs’ agencies, generally at the county or parish level. There also exist a small number (approximately 1%) of all sheriffs’ agencies at the municipal level in “independent” cities, for example, St. Louis, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where these municipalities are not physically located within a county. As a result, these independent municipalities must replicate all county services, including a sheriff’s department; these “city” sheriffs serve in only a custodial and process serving capacity, with no legally recognized law enforcement powers.
Sheriffs are elected officials in all but two states (Hawaii and Rhode Island) and are mandated constitutional officers in thirty-five of the fifty states. The constitutional basis of the office is of no small importance, and differentiating between sheriffs’ offices and departments is fundamental to understanding the legal authority of the two forms of this policing entity. First, the majority of sheriffs are of constitutional origins, being stipulated by the organic legal document of the sovereign. As an office, it cannot be placed under the direct control of the county board, nor can its powers be delimited by legislative enactments, nor can the sheriff be removed from office except for criminal conduct, where he generally may be arrested only by the county coroner. The sheriff is the county’s chief law enforcement officer and possesses the power of posse comitatus (the power of the county), whereby all able-bodied citizens between stipulated ages, often eighteen and sixty-five, must assist the sheriff at his or her request under penalty for noncompliance.
States that have created sheriffs as a matter of legislative enactment, as opposed to a constitutional provision, have sheriffs’ departments, rather than sheriffs’ offices. These are departments, under the executive branch of government, whose duties and responsibilities are overseen by a county board of supervisors, to whom the sheriff is directly accountable. This sheriff’s model is likened to that of an appointed chief of police at the municipal level of government, who may be easily removed from office, unlike the constitutionally based counterpart. Under a sheriff’s department modality, the agenda of the sheriff may be largely determined by an oversight body, such as a county board.
The sheriff’s jurisdiction is considerably greater than that of a chief of police, in terms of geography, bodies of law covering the jurisdiction, and the legal right to command and direct citizens as well as other police and law enforcement agencies within the county to assist in specific work. First, county sheriffs have full legal authority over an entire county, including incorporated areas, although as a matter of practice, sheriffs generally police only the unincorporated areas of their counties. Second, sheriffs, as officers of the court, have full legal authority over both criminal and civil matters, unlike their municipal and state counterparts. Last, because sheriffs hold posse comitatus powers, they may exercise their authority over other police or law enforcement agencies within the county, although this power is rarely employed, as a matter of legal comity (agreement), political realities, and budgetary constraints.
Organizational Structure and Service Style
Sheriffs’ agencies fall roughly into a four-part typology, including (1) the full-service model, where the agency provides the full range of policing, law enforcement, process serving, custodial, and court security responsibilities; (2) the law enforcement model, where there exists a separate police department within the sheriffs’ agency, or a separate countywide police department where the sheriff’s office has been abolished, with other services carried out by separate process serving and correctional/custodial departments (this type of arrangement is commonly known as a ”sheriff’s police” department and is generally allowed only in counties with populations of more than a million); (3) the civil-judicial model, which involves only court-related responsibilities; and (4) the correctional/custodial-judicial type, wherein all functions except law enforcement are provided.
Sheriffs’ agencies tend to be open institutions, sensitive to community needs and agendas, willing to work toward community betterment with their constituents. This organizational openness results partly from the sheriffs’ dependence on a favorable public image, necessary for reelection. This organizational openness inclines sheriffs’ agencies to be receptive to community needs and demands as well as newer modes of policing that are more community sensitive, that is, community-oriented policing.
Correspondingly, sheriffs’ agencies are less militaristic than their municipal and state counterparts, with little affinity for military protocol and symbolism or modes of policing that pit the agency against the community in a metaphorical ”war on crime.” This stands in stark contrast against the common posture found among municipal police departments nationwide, which are committed to a ”crime attack” approach under a ”professional model” or zero tolerance model of policing.
The form and function of sheriff’s agencies vary according to their size. As they increase in size (in terms of the number of sworn officers) and formality (bureaucratization), they tend to replicate more closely the traditional/professional model of policing (a closed system), where officers work as crime fighting specialists in discrete bureaus within the agency. On the other hand, as sheriffs’ agencies become smaller and are less formalized, they tend to become more institutionally open and committed to community coproduction as generalist officers in a collateral approach to the crime problem, which is less invasive and less potentially damaging to the community fabric. Interestingly, it is these small informal sheriffs’ agencies that have the highest crime clearance rates; they also experience less community tension than their big-city counterparts.
If the military metaphor is to be used, as it so often is in discussions regarding police agencies, formalized big-city police departments and large urban-based sheriffs’ agencies with their high degrees of officer specialization, formality, bureaucratization, and war on crime mentality can be said to selectively replicate the military model or a “paramilitarized” model (one that selects recruits from outside the community, in a process based entirely on qualifications and credentials). Smaller sheriffs’ agencies that are informal, rurally based, nonbureaucratized, with officers who function as generalists, replicate more closely a “militia model” of policing (a locally based unit instituted for mutual community betterment and protection, staffed by local residents).
See also: American Policing: Early Years; British Policing; Community-Oriented Policing: History; History of American Policing; Jail; Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD); Posse Comitatus.
- Brown, Johnny M. 1993. Sheriff’s Department versus Office of the Sheriff. Sheriff, March-April, 9.
- Brown, Lee P. n.d. The role of the sheriff. In The future of policing, A. W. Cohn, 227-28. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
- Falcone, David N., and L. Edward Wells. 1995. The county sheriff as a distinctive policing modality. American Journal of Police 14 (3/4): 123-48.
- Law Enforcement and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS). 2004. Data set. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
- Mahon, John K. 1983. History of the militia and the National Guard. New York: Macmillan.
- Reaves, Brian A. 2001. Sheriffs’ offices 1999. Law Enforcement and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS), Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin, 1-13.
- Reaves, Brian A. 2002. Census of state and local law enforcement agencies, 2000. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.
- Sattler, Ted. 1992. The High Sheriff in England today: The invisible man? Sheriff 44 (4): 20-23, 48.
- Struckhoff, David R. 1994. The American sheriff. Chicago: The Justice Research Institute.