When people hear the word sheriff, some may think of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, the model of community policing, or the Sheriff of Nottingham from the days of Robin Hood. What makes the Office of Sheriff unique in law enforcement, why should it be called the Sheriff’s Office not a Sheriff’s Department, and why is it important to preserve its direct accountability to the citizens via the election process?
The first of two important characteristics that distinguish the Office of Sheriff from other law enforcement units is its historical roots. In England, the sheriff came into existence around the 9th century. This makes the sheriff the oldest continuing, non-military, law enforcement entity in history. In early England the land was divided into geographic areas between a few individual kings – these geographic areas were called shires. Within each shire there was an individual called a reeve, which meant guardian. This individual was originally selected by the serfs to be their informal social and governmental leader. The kings observed how influential this individual was within the serf community and soon incorporated that position into the governmental structure. The reeve soon became the Kings appointed representative to protect the King’s interest and act as mediator with people of his particular shire. Through time and usage the words shire and reeve came together to be shire-reeve, guardian of the shire and eventually the word sheriff, as we know it today
The concept of sheriff, because of the vast British Empire, was exported to places such as Canada, Australia, India, and, of course, the American Colonies. In America, the office was modified over a period of time to fit democratic ideals In the other American colonies, following the pattern of English government, sheriffs were appointed. The first sheriff in America is believed to be Captain William Stone, appointed in 1634 for the Shire of Northampton in the colony of Virginia. The first elected sheriff was William Waters in 1652 in the same shire (shire was used in many of the colonies, before the word county replaced it.) As the nation expanded westward, the Office of Sheriff continued to be a significant part of law enforcement. The elected sheriff is part of America’s democratic fabric. In the United States today, of the 3083 sheriffs, approximately 98 percent are elected by the citizens of their counties or parishes.
The second characteristic that sets the sheriff’s office apart from other law enforcement agencies is its direct accountability to citizens through the election of the Sheriff. The Office of Sheriff is not a department of county government, it is the independent office through which the Sheriff exercises the powers of the public trust. No individual or small group hires or fires the Sheriff, or has the authority to interfere with the operations of the office. Elected sheriffs are accountable directly to the constitution of their state, the United States Constitution, statutes, and the citizens of their county. The sheriff should naturally do his best to work with all entities because it is important in a democratic society. The sheriff must work with all segments of government to serve and protect the citizens of the county.
– Taken from “History of Sheriff” by Sheriff Roger Scott, Dekalb County Illinois out of the National Sheriff’s Association