History of the Sheriff’s Office

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 was 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
“Wild West” – The Western Frontier Sheriff
Horace Greeley, the Editor of the New York Tribune, wrote to the huddled masses in the
eastern cities, “Go West Young Man!” and they did. 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,
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 few
exceptions, Sheriffs resorted to firepower much less often than is commonly imagined.
In American history, the frontier was the western most area of settlement at any given
time during the westward expansion of the nation. It began in Jamestown in 1607 and
the line kept moving west. The period of time known as the “Wild West” was from about
1835 until 1895, and the area for which it identifies was roughly the land west of the
Mississippi River.
The 19th Century was the golden age of the American Sheriff. Part of the significance of
the Office of the Sheriff in the American West was derived from the rural conditions of
the area. The vastness of the territories required broad jurisdictional enforcement
needs. The other significance resulted in the general need for law enforcement in a
relatively untamed and lawless condition that was rampant in the West. Because of the
lawlessness, a need for powerful and unique personalities to control the crime issues
was called for. As a result, colorful and dramatic persons were to hold the office of
sheriff in the Wild West. These personalities have provided imagination fuel for our
concepts of how the West was won. Characters like “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Bat
Masterson, Pat Garrett, William “Bill” Tilghman, William Breckenridge, Commodore
Perry Owens and John Slaughter are all colorful part of American History.
The West was harsh and rugged and in order to conquer it, only the brave and strong
could survive. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 almost doubled the size of the country
and there was no shortage of settlers heading toward the setting sun. Many attitudes
and principles accompanied these migrants. Rugged individualism, conquest, progress,10
free enterprise, the right to bear arms, and law and order principles reinforced American
ideals. The sheriff was a major player in these processes.
Western centers of populations were small and isolated and usually exhibited a
reasonable amount of peace and order. Most citizens in the West lived peacefully and
without great fear of personal attack. The majority of the settlers were hard working,
honest and honorable who came to build a new life in the West. Violence existed more
as a by-product of the era and environment rather than a demonstration of true and total
lawlessness. However, violence and crime were dramatically in existence during this
period and sheriffs were an important part of crime fighting matters in the nineteenth
century West.
Social misfits of various sorts, who had failed for various reasons in the East, followed
the allure of the West and all its attractions. Thus, the West became a refuge for the
potentially violent and lawless. The maladjusted became a basic equation for social
turmoil. The heterogeneous population in the territories required a local control to deal
with the complex issues of turbulence and crime. This was all very much like the need
for local controls in government form that were needed in medieval England and
Colonial America. As a result, the Office of Sheriff was a ready-made entity to deal with
the issues of crime on a local level. The idea that a position of this nature could be
elected gave it an added dimension. It could reflect the needs of the community, and the
citizens could have a direct input into the process of law and order by virtue of their
Confronted with serious issues of crime, disorder, vice, and violence, the pioneers of the
old West turned to members of their communities to enforce order. With a multi-century
background and history, the Office of Sheriff was a natural addition in this environment.
Selection could be made by appointment, or in most cases by popular vote from
community residents to select a sheriff. The countywide jurisdiction of the office fit very
nicely in the law enforcement efforts and supervision of the vast countryside. The ability
of the sheriff to respond to the hue and cry and to raise a posse helped greatly with the
issues of crime and the isolated nature of the frontier. The office that had evolved over
the centuries was a “hand in glove fit” for local law enforcement in the Wild West.
The Office of the Sheriff spread from community to community throughout settled areas
west of the Mississippi. Even isolated areas of the West generally had a sheriff as their
governments developed. Legal provisions varied but essentially statutes called for an
elected sheriff to be the primary police agent for the organized county governments.
Terms usually varied between two and four years and a variety of checks and balances
were placed providing for the removal of an official.
Sheriffs were generally allowed to hire assistants or deputies to help with the day-to-day
responsibilities of his office. He was also allowed to appoint citizens to perform certain
functions to preserve the peace. The posse comitatus, or power of the county, enabled
sheriffs to summon aid.11
Along with general powers of arrests, states gave sheriffs widely divergent privileges.
Wyoming allowed for sheriffs to use a residence for his law enforcement purposes at
county expense. New Mexico extended jurisdictional limits of the sheriff to permit him or
his deputies to enter all counties in the state to affect an arrest and to have concurrent
rights of posse comitatus in every county. While the duties of sheriffs and their deputies
were multitudinous, the primary law enforcement functions were virtually identical
throughout the early West.
An 1861 Nevada statute illustrates typical duties of the sheriff: “It shall be the duty of
Sheriffs and of their deputies to keep and preserve the peace in their respective
counties, and to quiet and suppress all affrays, riots, and insurrections for which
purpose, and for the service of process in civil and criminal cases, and in apprehending
or securing any person for felony, or breach of the peace, they may call upon of their
As chief law enforcement officer of the county, the sheriff performed diverse duties. In
many jurisdictions he served as tax collector, similar to the duties of the colonial sheriff.
Also, in contrast to its colonial forerunner, the sheriff had to administer corporal
punishment, as directed by the courts. The sheriff often times was required to carry out
the sentence of death. These rustic executions in the Wild West were performed
primarily by hanging an offender. Sometimes sheriffs constructed formal gallows for this
purpose, and other times a rope was simply tossed over a stout tree limb to accomplish
the execution. This onerous duty of a Western Sheriff is poetically illustrated by Judge
Roy Bean’s (Hanging Judge, Law West of the Pecos) death sentence of a man
convicted of murder in his court.
“Jose Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, in a few short weeks it will be spring.
The snows of winter will flow away, the ice will vanish, the air will become soft
and balmy. In short, Jose Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, the annual miracle of
the years will awaken and come to pass. But you won’t be here. The rivulet will
run its soaring course to the sea. The timid desert flowers will put forth their
tender shoots. The glorious valleys of this imperial domain will blossom as the
rose. Still you will not be. From every treetop, some wild songster will carol his
mating song. Butterflies will sport in the sunshine. The gentle breeze will tease
the tassels of the wild grasses, and all nature. Jose Manuel Miguel Xavier
Gonzales, you will not be here to enjoy it. Because I command the sheriff of the
county to lead you away to some remote spot, swing you by the neck from a
knotting bough of some sturdy oak, and let you hang until dead. And then, Jose
Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, I further command that such officer retire quickly
from your dangling corpse, so that vultures may descend from the heavens upon
your filthy body, until there is nothing but bare, bleached bones of a cold
blooded, blood thirsty, throat cutting, murdering S.O.B.”
Other duties of the office, collateral to the crime fighting duties, were rather mundane
and involved the service of process or other civil enforcement functions, which were
performed usually under peaceful conditions. Some counties prescribed rather peculiar12
duties like inspecting cattle, fighting fires, or eradicating prairie dogs. No matter what the
specific duties of a community required, universally by the later part of the nineteenth
century, the sheriff occupied the preeminent position in law enforcement throughout the
Posse – The Power of the County
Since the time of the early reeves in England, when help was needed to apprehend a
criminal, a hue and cry could be made to enlist support with law enforcement efforts.
The tradition followed the sheriff to the New World and it would become a foundation of
law. As well as being a basis of law, it became a stimulus, which would capture the
imagination of the American people and serve to inspire their will with regards to law
and order. It invested the citizens in the law enforcement process and served to extend
the office’s usefulness by enabling and allowing for unlimited manpower resources at
times of greatest need. In America the Latin term “posse comitatus” was used to
describe this volunteer effort. Literally translated, posse comitatus means “the power of
the county”. The authority of the posse comitatus was acquired through the powers of
the office of sheriff and allowed the sheriff to recruit any person over the age of fifteen to
aid in keeping the peace or to assist in the pursuit of felons. These efforts could be
made with the presence of, or the absence of the sheriff. Much of the philosophies of
law regarding citizen’s arrest powers are founded in the posse comitatus premise.
The posse comitatus would become shortened to a vernacular version of just “posse”.
The American posse would become a mainstay of law enforcement discharge in the
years to come. It would be employed to a great extent in the American Wild West period
as a regular tool of marshals and sheriffs. The American posse would become
romanticized in dime store novels and newspapers throughout the era. In later years it
would again be romanticized in movies and television programs. The posse continues to
be used in contemporary terms and still serves useful law enforcement purposes in
many parts of the United States.
The Twentieth Century Sheriff
The twentieth century brought a marked decline in strength of the Office of Sheriff in
many parts of the country. Three (3) primary reasons for the decline are:
1) Abuse of the political nature of the office,
2) Academic and media misrepresentation and
3) The lack of professionalism, standards and training.
All these factors resulted in serious breaks of understanding of the Office of Sheriff,
regarding its role and importance in the criminal justice system.13
Politics and the Office of Sheriff became universally intertwined in the twentieth century.
Areas with large metropolitan populations, ‘political machines’ often controlled the Office
of Sheriff and used as a political career stepping-stone. The post enabled the sheriff to
make political appointments to enhance his own political stature.
Grover Cleveland is a good example of this process. He was elected sheriff in Erie
County, New York prior his being a district attorney, New York State Governor, and
eventually president of the United States. Accounts of his term of office as sheriff
identify him as a competent administrator.
This was not always the case. The Office of Sheriff was often a stronghold for political
patronage and opportunistic abilities for “pocket lining”. Corruption and abuse of the
Office of Sheriff prompted numerous civic groups to take action, eventually leading to
reforms, i.e., Civil Service and State Legislation.
As an elected official, the sheriff often times is more subject to popular will than an
appointed police chief. Along those lines, from a professional police management
perspective, the elected nature of the sheriff’s office has presented problems indigenous
to its own perspective. For instance: sheriffs with no law enforcement service or training
have been elected to the position, sheriffs lacking skills have defeated sheriffs with
greater skills by virtue of political popularity, there have been no statutory experience or
education requirements placed on seeking the job, and survival in office has sometimes
required political compromise at the expense of professional commitment.
The elected nature of the office has been cause for the most serious indictments of the
office. Allegations regarding a sheriff being required to participate in partisan politics in
order to hold his office are the most prevalent criticism. Yet in reality, all law
enforcement executives are politicians in one form or another. Some may refute this
assertion, but only out of misguided notions that politicians are evil or that an
administrator cannot be a politician and a professional manager at the same time.
Realistically, a politician is nothing more than a person accountable to the public for
decisions made in the performance of duty.
Academia and Media
The Office of Sheriff was frequently overlooked when police training, professionalism
and administration was the topical discussion. Little, if any, emphasis was placed on the
office in police literature, and if there was reference to the position it was generally
unfavorable. Some of the academic police literature referrals to the Office of Sheriff
during the time period of the 1920’s and 1930’s are as follows: “a dyeing medieval
throwback”, “an outdated law enforcement institution” and “dark continent of American
politics” When policing and law enforcement literature analyzed the office it was in the
role as a jailer, court bailiff, process server, and county tax collector.14
Historically, the tasks and roles of sheriff’s offices and police departments have been
fundamentally different. Sheriff’s law enforcement functions have often been relegated
to jurisdictions of sparse populations that could not support a municipal police agency. A
false perception existed that the Sheriff law enforcement functions and problems were
not the same as those inherent within in a municipality. In addition to the Sheriffs role as
the keeper of the jail and the courts and service of civil process, were law enforcement
The Sheriff’s limited portrayal may have been a partially correct during the early part of
the twentieth century. This all changed somewhat after World War II, when populations
expanded out to rural areas. This eliminated part of the distinction between sheriffs and
chiefs when “big city” problems came to the country.
As the nation’s police interest was escalating, the Office of Sheriff was neglected or
worse defamed. The media stereotyped sheriffs in contemptuous ways that degraded
and almost never enhanced the stature of the office. Sheriffs (especially southern
sheriffs) were characterized as corrupt, brutal, cruel, inhumane, prejudiced, lazy, stupid,
inept, biased, and not even minimally effective.
During the same time, other media representations of big city police departments were
depicting policemen as smart, tough, attractive, compassionate, and able to solve the
toughest crimes with heroic and brilliant efforts. As the image of sheriffs was being
tarnished the counterpart police officer’s image was being polished.
This made for a vivid contrast. The appearance of sheriffs was of ineffective creatures
that had not evolved from the Wild West period while more modern police agencies
were held out as paragons of excellence.
Professionalism and Training
“Professional” has been a difficult title for Sheriffs to earn. Throughout history, the office
of Sheriff was awarded to the richest, the strongest or the luckiest – but not necessarily
the best qualified.
The academia and media characterization were especially damaging in the rural South
where the Office of Sheriff was often the most important, if not the sole law enforcement
agency in the county and many it’s unincorporated areas.
The restrictions under which a sheriff must operate limited the standards of
professionalism for the office. (1) The county frequently is so small and/or so
impoverished as to make an adequate program of law enforcement difficult to support;
(2) tenure sometimes is restricted by state statute or constitution; (3) professional
qualifications for the office are virtually nonexistent; (4) compensation sometimes takes
the form of fees and commissions rather than a fixed salary; and (5) the time and
resources for law enforcement work ordinarily are reduced by the requirement that the15
sheriff other responsibilities and duties i.e., supervision of the county jail and its
prisoners, service of civil process, and attending the courts.
The Office of Sheriff had and still today has to some extent, a large handicap to
overcome, but is resilient, adaptable and enduring.
The National Sheriffs’ Association (NSA) was founded in 1940 to give a voice to the
Sheriffs of America. The NSA invites every newly elected Sheriff to attend its two-week
National Sheriffs’ Institute, conducted at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. The
Institute provides Sheriffs with the latest available information in such areas as
management, technology, law, personnel and jail administration.
In the 1960’s the Peace Officers Standard and Training Commission (P.O.S.T.) was
created. P.O.S.T. operates under the authority of Tennessee State Law and mandates
training (basic and in-service) for all Tennessee law enforcement officers. (State,
County and City)
This mandated basic training (currently 10 weeks in length) is conducted at the
Tennessee Law Enforcement Training Academy located in Nashville, TN. In-
Service Training (annual 40 hours of training) is conducted locally.
Additional law enforcement training is available at little or no costs to Sheriff’s Offices at
the U.S. Justice Department’s Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco,
Georgia, and the National Institute of Corrections’ National Academy of Corrections in
Longmont, Colorado.
The Contemporary Office of Sheriff
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 more than 3,000
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 acts of their state
Alaska is the only state in which the Office of Sheriff does not exist. The reason being
Alaska has no county system of government.
There are only two states in which the voters do not elect the Sheriff. In Rhode Island,
the governor appoints Sheriffs. In Hawaii, the state’s chief justice appoints Sheriffs.
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, while16
others report to an office in a skyscraper and manage an office whose budget exceeds
that of many corporations. Despite their differences in style, however, most Sheriffs
have certain roles and responsibilities in common:
Law Enforcement
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 and
accident investigations, and transportation of prisoners. Larger agencies may perform
criminal investigations or engage in other specialized law enforcement activities. Some
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
Neighborhood Watch Program, sponsored by the National Sheriffs’ Association, allows
citizens and law enforcement officials to cooperate in keeping communities safe.
A Sheriff’s law enforcement activities often involve assistance to those affected by
crime. For example, the National Sheriffs’ Association’s Victim Witness Program,
sponsored in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, offers training and
technical assistance for Sheriffs who want to change the way in which the justice
system responds to the needs of crime victims and witnesses.
As the Sheriff’s law enforcement duties become more extensive and complex, new
career opportunities for people with specialized skills are opening up in Sheriffs’ offices
around the country. Among the specialties now in demand are underwater diving,
piloting, boating, snow skiing, radar technology, communications, computer technology,
accounting, emergency medicine and foreign languages (especially Spanish, French
and Vietnamese).
Court Duties
In every state in which the office exists, Sheriffs are responsible for maintaining the
safety and security of the court. A major function of the sheriff to the court is to provide
bailiffs. Typical duties of the bailiffs are to provide court security, assist with the flow of
cases, escort prisoners to and from the courtroom, and maintain juries, or to perform
other court-related functions.17
Jail Administration
Most Sheriffs’ offices maintain and operate county (parish) 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
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 their jail officers into partnership with judges, district
attorneys and corrections officials. As jail conditions improve, Sheriffs and their
agencies are earning increased respect and recognition as professionals.
Civil Process
Another significant role of the sheriff is to provide civil law enforcement service on
behalf of the courts. Municipal police officers are generally prohibited from performing
this function. In the event enforcement is needed on behalf of the court, exclusive of
criminal law enforcement, the sheriff is the primary agent in the United States to provide
it. Civil process service, summonses, evictions, service of court orders, writs,
repossession orders, child support orders, and orders of protection are typical issues
that are dealt with by sheriff’s personnel.
The Future Office of Sheriff
Along with myriad other changes being brought into the 21st Century comes come a
new breed of Sheriff. Far from the stereotypical shoot-‘em-up lawman of the movies and
television, today’s Sheriff is likely to have a college degree, a graduate degree in
criminal justice, law or public administration, and several years’ experience in the
criminal justice system. Law enforcement is increasingly complex in the new millennium.
For the progressive, forward-looking Sheriffs’ Offices of today, education and training
are the keys to effective job performance. A positive public perception is vital to the
success of the Office of Sheriff today and in the future. This image can only be
accomplished through professionalism. Sophisticated social and communication skills
are essential for sheriffs and their employees to be able to gather community support.
Sheriffs must realize that their representatives reflect upon the image of the leader and
all acts, either good or bad, will reveal their effectiveness portrait.18
If the history of the office tells us nothing else it must be recognized that it is critical for
sheriffs to maintain professional standards. Issues of integrity, ethics, neglect,
misfeasance, and malfeasance of the Office of Sheriff, coupled with the lack of
education and/or training, have been intertwined with the function for so long and for so
many different reasons that it is difficult to separate fact from fiction with regard to
professionalism. These issues of professionalism shall have to be addressed if the
Office of Sheriff is to go boldly and brightly into the 21st Century.
At the county level, the sheriff, in most instances, represents one of the highest, if not
the highest authority of law enforcement. Independence and self-governance are
critically important to this office. Due to the elective nature of the position, it has an
autonomous nature greater than that of other appointed law enforcement or correctional
administrators. As the highest representative of the office, the sheriff answers ultimately
to the voters, rather than to other government officials.
In the past some of the Office of Sheriffs’ greatest criticism and greatest problem lied
within its political roots. This may in fact be its greatest asset. As an elected official, a
sheriff can be a social force within a community. Being the sole law enforcement officer
in which the electorate can either endorse or discharge, a sheriff can represent the
public’s will on issues of community importance.
Elections represent the very foundation of our country and reflect our democracy. A
sheriff can act as a representative of the community within the criminal justice system.
“One voice one vote” has provided for individual participation in the selection process of
American leaders since the inception of our government. The elective process of
selecting a sheriff can be translated into a positive issue about the office rather than a
negative one. Sheriffs can point to the fact that if the public is not satisfied with the job
they are doing, they can be voted out.
Many examples are being offered of new and innovative technologies in the immediate
and not-too-distant future – some believable, some not so believable. Chances are,
however, that people will remain very much the same. And therefore, the job of the
Sheriff will remain much the same, as well. We will still need Sheriffs to enforce the law,
to safeguard the courts and to maintain the jails. No matter what else changes, the
Sheriff’s motto will remain: “We Serve and Protect.”