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The role and responsibilities of the county sheriff vary by state, and they aren’t always clearly defined.
The word “sheriff” is a contraction of the Old English phrase shire-reeve, meaning someone who presides over a county and its people on behalf of the king. And the flexibility of the sheriff’s office is built into that definition: Depending on the county, the residents, and the king, the job of presiding could be interpreted in very different ways.
This malleability continues into the modern United States, where there are some 3,000 sheriffs, spread out among forty-seven states and nearly every county. Each sheriff is typically elected to carry out duties either explicitly or implicitly granted through state constitutions.
As Sheriff Eddie Joe White of Liberty County, Florida, put it: “There’s no way to define the parameters of sheriff. From one day to the next, you’re a fireman, you’re a paramedic, you’re a grief counselor. You can’t back away from any responsibility and say it’s not your job, because, as sheriff, you are responsible for everything as it deals with humanity.”
Depending on local laws, this could mean: collecting taxes; keeping the peace; enforcing court orders; investigating crimes; arresting citizens; and running the county jail. And each state determines the level of training sheriffs must have, from none at all to something akin to what police officers go through.
There are also some interpretations that go beyond this. The Constitutional Sheriffs movement argues that elected sheriffs outrank local, state, and even federal law enforcement.
And there have been celebrity sheriffs throughout history — and in popular fiction — who have helped shape the position, and our cultural understanding of the job.
One is Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was pardoned by President Trump a couple of months ago.
Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt for practicing unconstitutional profiling of Latinos. Now, he’s running for the U.S. Senate.
From The New York Times:
Mr. Arpaio began his long career in law enforcement as a police officer in Washington in 1954. He later worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Latin America before his election as sheriff of Maricopa County in 1991.
In almost a quarter-century in that office, Mr. Arpaio developed a national reputation for severe correctional practices and a tireless crusade against illegal immigration. He opened an outdoor jail known as Tent City, turning the desert heat into a punitive element, and forced inmates to wear striped jumpsuits and pink underwear. His department conducted broad “saturation patrols” of heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, often without evidence of criminal activity, and routinely detained people beyond their court-ordered release dates so they could be handed over to federal immigration authorities.
We’ll look at what is known, what is unique and what is misunderstood about the role of sheriffs in our justice system.
- John R. Layton Sheriff; Marion County, Indiana
- Ashley Powers Journalist; contributing writer for "The California Sunday Magazine" and "The New Yorker"; @ashleypowers
- Josh Rushing Reporter and host; "Fault Lines" on Al-Jazeera English; @joshrushing
- James Tomberlin Contributing writer; Virginia Law Review, "'Don't Elect Me': Sheriffs and the Need for Reform in County Law Enforcement"; @jamtomb
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