What is a sheriff? Mention the word “sheriff” and many people’s minds will fill immediately with images of shootouts and gunfights in the Wild West. Such is the power of old movies and television series, which have so magnified the role of the nineteenth-century American sheriff that it is now virtually impossible to think of sheriffs as existing in any other place or time. Most people would be surprised to know that the office of sheriff has a proud history that spans well over a thousand years, from the early Middle Ages to our own “high-tech” era.
With few exceptions, today’s sheriffs are elected officials who serve as a chief law-enforcement officer for a county. Although the duties of the sheriff vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the sheriff’s office is generally active in all three branches of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, the courts and corrections.
The importance of the modern sheriff was stressed by President Ronald Reagan in his address to the National Sheriffs’ Association on June 21, 1984. He said, “Thank you for standing up for this nation’s dream of personal freedom under the rule of law. Thank you for standing against those who would transform that dream into a nightmare of wrongdoing and lawlessness. And thank you for your service to your communities, to your country, and to the cause of law and justice.”
To appreciate the vital function that sheriffs continue to serve, it is useful to become acquainted with the long and diverse history of the sheriff’s office, and how the office has grown and changed over the past twelve centuries.
The Beginning: The Middle Ages
More than twelve hundred years ago, the country we now call England was inhabited by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns. (Tun is the source of the modern English word town.) These Anglo-Saxons were often at war. Sometime before the year 700, they decided to systematize their methods of fighting by forming a system of local self-government based on groups of ten.
Each tun was divided into groups of ten families, called tithings. The elected leader of each tithing was called a tithingman.
The tithings were also arranged in tens. Each group of ten tithings (or a hundred families) elected its own chief. The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which later became shortened to reeve.
During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in this system of tithings and hundreds. A new unit of government, the shire, was formed when groups of hundreds banded together. The shire was the forerunner of the modern county. Just as each hundred was led by a reeve (chief), each shire had a reeve as well. To distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official became known as a shire-reeve.
The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern English word sheriff. The sheriff — in early England, and metaphorically, in present-day America — is the keeper, or chief, of the county.
Under King Alfred the Great, who assumed the throne in the year 871, the sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his own county. However, it remained the duty of every citizen to assist the sheriff in keeping the peace. If a criminal or escaped suspect was at large, it was the sheriff’s responsibility to give the alarm — the hue and cry, as it was called. Any member of the community who heard the hue and cry was then legally responsible for helping to bring the criminal to justice. This principle of direct citizen participation survives today in the procedure known as posse commitatus.
The Office Grows
Originally, tuns had ruled themselves through the election of tithingmen and reeves. Over the years, however, government became more centralized — concentrated in the power of a single ruler, the king. The king distributed huge tracts of land to various noblemen, who thereby became entitled to govern those tracts of land under the king’s authority. Under this new arrangement, it was the noblemen who appointed sheriffs for the counties they controlled. In those areas not consigned to noblemen, the king appointed his own sheriffs.
At the Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Saxon king Harold was defeated by the Normans — invaders from the country we now call France. The Normans, who did not believe at all in local government, centralized their power. Rule was greatly consolidated under the king and his appointees. More than ever before, the sheriff became an agent of the king. Among the sheriff’s new duties was that of tax collector.
Dictatorial rule by a series of powerful kings became more and more intolerable over the years. Finally, in 1215, an army of rebellious noblemen forced the despotic King John to sign the Magna Carta. This important document restored a number of rights to the noblemen and guaranteed certain basic freedoms. The text of the Magna Carta mentioned the role of the sheriff nine times, further establishing the importance of that office.
Over the next few centuries, the sheriff remained the leading law enforcement officer of the county. To be appointed sheriff was considered a significant honor. The honor, however, was a costly one. If the people of the county did not pay the full amount of their taxes and fines, the sheriff was required to make up the difference out of his own pocket. Furthermore, the sheriff was expected to serve as host for judges and other visiting dignitaries, providing them with lavish entertainment at his own expense.
For these reasons, the office of sheriff was not often sought after. In fact, many well-qualified men did everything they could to avoid being chosen. The law on this point was quite clear — if a man was chosen to be sheriff, he had to serve.
The Sheriff Crosses the Atlantic
When English settlers began to travel to the New World, the office of sheriff traveled with them. The first American counties were established in Virginia in 1634, and records show that one of these counties elected a sheriff in 1651. Although this particular sheriff was chosen by popular vote, most other colonial sheriffs were appointed. Just as noblemen in medieval England had depended upon sheriffs to protect their tracts of land, large American landowners appointed sheriffs to enforce the law in the areas they controlled. Unlike their English counterparts, however, American sheriffs were not expected to pay extraordinary expenses out of their own pockets. Some sheriffs — most of whom were wealthy men to begin with — even made money from the job.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American sheriffs were assigned a broad range of responsibilities by colonial and state legislatures. Some of these responsibilities, such as law enforcement and tax collection, were carried over from the familiar role of the English sheriff. Other responsibilities, such as overseeing jails and workhouses, were new.
Prior to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the most common punishments for crimes that did not warrant the death penalty had been flogging or other sorts of physical mutilation. When confinement became favored as a more civilized way to deal with criminals, authorities in medieval England introduced the county jail. They began to experiment with other sorts of facilities as well. Among these were the workhouse, where minor offenders were assigned useful labor, and the house of correction, where people who had been unable to function in society could theoretically be taught to do so.
All three of these institutions were brought to colonial America, and the responsibility for managing them was given to the colonies’ ubiquitous law enforcement officer — the sheriff.
As Americans began to move westward, they took with them the concept of county jails and the office of sheriff. The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in the lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot. Here it is said that sheriffs fell into two categories, the quick and the dead. Most western sheriffs, however, kept the peace by virtue of their authority rather than their guns. With a few exceptions, sheriffs resorted to firepower much less often than is commonly imagined.
The Sheriff Today
In the minds of many Americans, the role of sheriff ended with the taming of the Wild West. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There are over three thousand counties in the United States today, and almost every one of them has a sheriff. Some cities, such as Denver, St. Louis, Richmond and Baltimore have sheriffs as well.
In the majority of states, the office of sheriff is established by the state constitution. Most of the remaining states have established the office by an act of state legislature. Alaska is the only state in which the office of sheriff does not exist.
There are only two states in which the sheriff is not elected by the voters. In Rhode Island, sheriffs are appointed by the governor; in Hawaii, deputy sheriffs serve in the Department of Public Safety’s Sheriff’s Division.
Because the office of sheriff exists in so many different places and under so many different conditions, there is really no such thing as a “typical” sheriff. Some sheriffs still have time to drop by the town coffee shop to chat with the citizens each day, while others report to an office in a skyscraper and manage a department whose budget exceeds that of many corporations. Despite their differences in style, however, most sheriffs have certain roles and responsibilities in common.
Most sheriffs’ offices have a responsibility for law enforcement, a function that dates all the way back to the origins of the office in feudal England. Although the authority of the sheriff varies from state to state, a sheriff always has the power to make arrests within his or her own county. Some states extend this authority to adjacent counties or to the entire state.
Many sheriffs’ offices also perform routine patrol functions such as traffic control, accident investigations, and transportation of prisoners. Larger departments may perform criminal investigations or engage in other specialized law enforcement activities. Some unusually large sheriffs’ offices may have an air patrol (including fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters), a mounted patrol or a marine patrol at their disposal.
Many sheriffs enlist the aid of local neighborhoods in working to prevent crime. The National Neighborhood Watch Program, sponsored by the National Sheriffs’ Association, allows citizens and law enforcement officials to cooperate in keeping communities safe.
As the sheriff’s law enforcement duties become more extensive and complex, new career opportunities for people with specialized skills are opening up in sheriff’s offices around the country. Among the specialties now in demand are underwater diving, piloting, boating, skiing, radar technology, communications, computer technology, accounting, emergency medicine, and foreign languages (especially Spanish, French, and Vietnamese.)
In every state in which the office exists, sheriffs are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the court. A sheriff or deputy may be required to attend all court sessions; to act as bailiff; to take charge of juries whenever they are outside the courtroom; to serve court papers such as subpoenas, summonses, warrants, writs, or civil process; to extradite prisoners; to enforce money decrees (such as those relating to the garnishment or sale of property); to collect taxes; or to perform other court-related functions.
Most sheriffs’ offices maintain and operate county jails, detention centers, detoxification centers and community corrections facilities such as work-release group homes and halfway houses. Sheriffs, and the jail officers under their authority, are responsible for supervising inmates and protecting their rights. They are also responsible for providing inmates with food, clothing, exercise, recreation and medical services.
This responsibility has become more difficult as old jail facilities deteriorate and become overcrowded. The mid-1970s brought on an explosion of lawsuits filed by inmates to protest their conditions of confinement. In recent years, however, national and state commissions, along with the courts, have been working together with local authorities to make jails more hospitable and humane.
This effort has brought sheriffs and jail officers into partnership with judges, district attorneys, and corrections officials. As jail conditions improve, sheriffs and their departments are earning increased respect and recognition as professionals.