Home > Themes > Governance Features > Elected Sheriffs and the Need for Reform in County Law Enforcement

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 nor on the governance literature as an entity separate and distinct from county government or municipal police departments.

Each sheriff is typically elected to carry out duties either explicitly or implicitly granted through state constitutions. 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.

Although his elected status creates a perception that the sheriff is a local county officer, 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.

University of Virginia School of Law student James Tomberlin argues that county law enforcement is in need of reform, as elections are not functioning as an effective accountability mechanism. In order to ensure greater accountability, Tomberlin argues that county government must be given power to act as a check on county law enforcement.

Tomberlin further argues that, although the sheriff’s office in its current form is the wrong institutional mechanism to provide local law enforcement services, the county is actually the best level of government at which to provide policing. In this light, Tomberlin discusses the merits of two models of achieving consolidation of policing to the county level, with insights gleaned from America’s experiences with sheriffs.

Read the complete journal article:

Tomberlin, James, ‘Don’t Elect Me’: Sheriffs and the Need for Reform in County Law Enforcement. Virginia Law Review, Vol. 104, p. 113, March 2018.

Listen to a podcast on the topic:

Sheriffs: Elected. Empowered. Accountable? (1A/NPR, Tuesday, Jul 31 2018)