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.
When settlers left England to colonize the New World, they took with them many of their governmental forms, including their law enforcement system. The Office of Sheriff traveled with these colonists. In New England, where towns and villages were the principal governmental units, the watch and ward was used. In the Middle Atlantic and Southern states, where people settled on plantations and small farms the county system of government was natural and strong, The Office of Sheriff was more important here, than in those areas where local government centered in towns or townships.
In 1634, William Stone was appointed the first sworn sheriff in America by becoming the sheriff in the County of Accomac, Virginia and served two (2) consecutive one-year terms. The first sheriffs in Virginia were selected from exclusive influential groups of large landholders within the counties.
There is some debate as to the who, where and when of the first sheriff in America. Some researchers state that America's first sheriff was Lord William Baldridge, appointed in 1634 in St. Mary's County, Maryland.
A series of statutes involving the appointment of county offices and office holders were created. A Virginia proclamation of March 13, 1651, required each county to choose a sheriff. In an interesting departure from the previous appointment process, which would prove to be prophetic in future years, the commissioners of Northampton County Virginia asked its inhabitants to elect its sheriff. In 1651, William Waters became the first elected sheriff in America.
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.
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.
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.
What are the differences between sheriff's offices and other law enforcement agencies?
To understand the differences, one must look at the definitions of each term - department and office. The sheriff holds an office, while other top administrators are appointed to administer departments.
Department: One of the major divisions of a branch of government. Generally, a branch or division of government subordinate to that government's administration.
Office: A right and correspondent duty to exercise a public trust. A public charge or employment. It is an elected public office.
In Texas, the office of sheriff is a constitutional office having exclusive powers, authority and responsibility. The sheriff is not appointed by a government body, but is elected by the people and is responsible to the people and not subordinate to county administrators or other elected officials. The sheriff is the only law enforcement position that is selected directly by and accountable to the citizens.
Sheriffs and their deputies provide public safety service by mandate or tradition.
Today's sheriffs are responsible for protecting human life, the public peace and order, the protection of the rights of individuals and their property, the prevention of crime and the enforcement of laws without discrimination.
Over the years, the law enforcement profession has become very sophisticated, as citizens have come to rely on us for more and more intervention and protection. The types of crimes and the criminals have become more complex and the system has become overburdened attempting to meet the need in traditional ways.
Today, more than ever, sheriffs need the support of citizens to maintain the livability and safety of our communities.
From early history, Sheriffs have been enforcing laws, protecting citizens and enforcing the will of King and Court. It is here the powers of the Sheriff originated in English Common Law, which has been absorbed into American Common Law and subsequently into the Constitution of the state of Tennessee.
The Office of Sheriff's primary obligation is to represent the sovereignty, authority, and interests of the State it's respective jurisdiction", whereas a Police Department represents the interests of the local jurisdiction.
Originally the Sheriff was the King's man, representing the interests and authority of the King in his Shire, often controlled by noblemen not always sympathetic or loyal to the King. In preserving the rights of the government, he (the Sheriff) represents the sovereignty of the state (Texas) and has no superior in his county.
The modern Office of Sheriff carries with it all of the common law powers, duties and responsibilities to preserve the peace, enforce the laws and arrest and commit to jail felons and other infractors of the law. The powers and duties of the Sheriff are analogous to those imposed upon police departments. The Sheriff is the principle conservator of the peace within the county.