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 a few exceptions, today's Sheriffs are elected officials who serve as the 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 Office of Sheriff was expressed by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in his THE VALUE OF CONSTITUTIONS, “The Office of Sheriff is the most important of all the executive offices of the county.” The Office of Sheriff is one of antiquity. With the exception of king, no non-religious office in the English-speaking world is older. A history of the Sheriff is a history of man's self-government. It is a history, which begins in the Old Testament, continues through the annals of Judeo-Christian tradition. It is the oldest law enforcement office known within the common-law system and it has always been accorded great dignity and high trust.
There is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the County Sheriff. Sheriffs have served and protected the English-speaking people for a thousand years. The Office of Sheriff and the law enforcement, judicial and correctional functions he performs are more than 1000 years old and today, as in the past, the County Sheriff is a peace officer entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of domestic tranquility.
The Office of Sheriff became bedrock of English society and government, and the High Sheriff was for centuries the pivot around which the machinery of government was to turn. The whole constitutional, economic, judicial and administrative development was dependent on the office of High Sheriff.
The concepts of “county” and “Sheriff” were essentially the same today as they have been during the previous 1200 years of English legal history. The county form of government and the Office of Sheriff are inseparable and because of the English heritage of the American colonies; the new United States of America adopted the English law and legal institutions as it's own.
The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which later became shortened to reeve. A number of changes occurred in this system of tithings and reeves. 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 was in early England, and metaphorically is in present-day America, the keeper, or chief, of the county. The shire-reeve or sheriff was the chief law enforcement officer of his county, responsible for interpreting the law and maintaining and order within his own county. But every tithing man was expected to share the obligation, remaining 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 with the procedure known as posse commitatus.
The shire-reeve or Sheriff was the chief law enforcement officer of each county in the year 1000 AD. 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 also from his direct relationship to the central government. The Crown appointed English sheriffs.