History of the Sheriff
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 (a group of ten families).
The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which was later shortened to reeve (group of 100 families). During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in there system which led to a new unit of government, the shire (groups of hundreds banded together), which is now known in America as a county. So to distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official name became known as a shire-reeve.
The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern word for sheriff (the keeper, or chief, of the county).
King Alfred the Great
In the year 871, under King Alfred the Great, the Sheriff was responsible for maintaining law and order within his own county.
Over the years as the country became more centralized the King distributed huge tracts of land to various nobleman who governed those lands under the King’s authority. The nobleman appointed the Sheriff for the counties he controlled and for those areas not given to noblemen, the King appointed his own Sheriff.
Other Kings & Evolution of the Role
In 1066, more than ever before the Sheriff became the agent of the King and his new duties was that of tax collector. This traces back to England before the Norman Conquest. During the reign of William the conqueror, the Sheriff had almost unlimited power. He was virtual ruler of the county, responsible for its revenues, military force, police, jails, courts and the execution of its writs. The importance of the office resulted not only from the scope of the Sheriff’s duties, but from his direct relationship to the central government. The Crown appointed English sheriffs.
In 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta. In the text of the Magna Carta it mentioned the role of the Sheriff nine times further establishing the importance of the office.
Over the next few centuries, the Sheriff remained the leading law enforcement officer for the county.
Westernization of the Sheriff
When English settlers came to the new world, the office of Sheriff traveled with them.
The first American counties were established in Virgina in 1634 and one of these counties elected a Sheriff in 1651.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, American Sheriffs were assigned a broad range of responsibilities by colonial and state legislature, such responsibilities as tax collection and law enforcement were carried over from England. Some new responsibilities were added such as overseeing the jails and workhouses.
As America began to move Westward, they took the concept of county jails and the Office of Sheriff with them. The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot. Here it is said that sheriff fell into two categories, the quick and the dead.
Famous American Sheriffs
Some famous American sheriffs include:
- Sheriff Bat Masterson - Ford County, Kansas
- Sheriff Buford Pusser - McNairy County, Tennessee - Portrayed in Walking Tall, and in a suite of songs on Drive-By Truckers' 2004 album, "The Dirty South"
- Sheriff Dave Reichert - King County, Washington - Tracked the Green River killer; elected to Congress in 2004
- Sheriff Gerald Hege - Davidson County, North Carolina - Famous for his "no-deals" behavior and highly unorthodox way of fighting crime
- Sheriff Grover Cleveland - Erie County, New York - The only sheriff ever to be elected President of the United States; in his case, he was elected to that office twice in non-consecutive terms
- Sheriff Joe Arpaio - Maricopa County, Arizona - Famous for his stance on criminal justice
- Sheriff Pat Garrett - Lincoln County, New Mexico - Famous for killing Billy the Kid
- Sheriff Seth Bullock - Deadwood fame
- Sheriff Sherman Block - Los Angeles County, California - Highest paid government administrator in the United States
There are over three thousand counties in the United States today and almost every one of them has a Sheriff.
In the majority of the states, the office of sheriff is established by the constitution. Most of the remaining states were established by an act of state legislature.
There are two states in which the Sheriff is not elected by the voters. In Rhode Island they are appointed by the Governor and in Hawaii deputy sheriffs serve the Department of Public Safety’s Sheriff’s Division.
Most Sheriffs’ offices have a responsibility for law enforcement, although the authority of the Sheriff varies from state to state, the Sheriff has the power to make arrests within his or her own county. Some states extend this authority to adjacent counties or the entire state. Many sheriffs’ offices perform routine patrol functions such as:
- Accident Investigations
- Criminal Investigations
- Specialized Activities
- Traffic Control
- Transport of Prisoners
Sheriffs are responsible for:
- Civil process
- Maintaining the safety and security of the court
- Prisoner extradition
- Service of court papers such as:
- Take charge of juries when outside of the courtroom
In some states the Sheriff is responsible for the operations of the county jail.
The sheriff is also responsible for collection of property taxes, which happens to be the same function that they served under the Kings in England.