Most state constitutions require that counties have an elected sheriff who serves as the county’s chief law enforcement officer. The sheriff’s office is over a thousand years old and today has strong cultural associations with independence and populism. Ironically, however, the sheriff’s office has not been studied in the legal literature on policing as an entity separate and distinct from municipal police departments. This Note attempts to remedy that deficiency by identifying the unique pathologies of the American sheriff and proposing dramatic reforms to county law enforcement.
Although his elected status creates a perception that the sheriff is a local county officer, this Note argues that this perception is inaccurate because the sheriff is independent of the county and is actually, in many important ways, an agent of the state. The sheriff’s hybrid state-and-local status creates misalignments between different levels of government that obstruct efforts to hold the sheriff accountable.
County law enforcement is in need of reform. This Note argues that elections are not functioning as an effective accountability mechanism and that county government must be given power to act as a check on county law enforcement. This Note further argues that, although the sheriff in his current form is emphatically not the officer for the job, the county is actually the best level of government at which to provide policing. This Note discusses the merits of two models of achieving consolidation of policing to the county level, with insights gleaned from America’s experiences with sheriffs.