Sheriff: the county’s most powerful public figure

By Sheriff Tommy Allen

January 2, 2014

The New Year is here and 2014 will see many exciting things. One of those is the election of a new sheriff for Anson County. There will also be commissioner elections, state House and Senate races, and some national races for Washington offices. But few local races draw as much attention as that of the local sheriff’s race. That is as it should be, because the sheriff is considered the most powerful elected local office. The sheriff is an extremely powerful individual.

I thought I’d address the importance of this year’s sheriff’s election over the next two months by starting with some history of the office of sheriff and the duties and responsibilities. Next month I’ll write about what the public should look for and expect from their sheriff.

The office of sheriff goes back well into the first millennium. It originated in England where it first came into existence around the 9th century. This makes the sheriff the oldest continuing, non-military law enforcement entity in history. In early England the land was divided into geographic areas called shires. Within each shire was an individual known as a “reeve,’ appointed by the King, to protect the King’s interest and carry out the edicts and acts of the King. Through time and usage, the words shire and reeve came together to be the “shire-reeve,” the guard of the shire; and eventually the word “Sheriff” was used.

The term and concept of sheriff came to the new world with the American colonies. The first sheriffs were generally appointed by large land holders. Eventually most sheriffs were elected and served at the pleasure of the public they served. The early American sheriff was important to the security of the people and had much power including the execution of criminals by hanging.

As the new world expanded westward so did the Office of Sheriff. There were many interesting individuals including Augustin Washington, sheriff of Westmoreland County, Va., and the father of George Washington. There was also Wild Bill Hickcock, Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp in towns such as Dodge City, Deadwood and Tombstone.

In the United States today there are sheriffs in all states except three. Alaska has no county government and no sheriff. Connecticut has no sheriff but a State Marshal system. Hawaii has no sheriff but there is a “deputy sheriff” division in their Department of Public Safety. Most sheriffs today are elected.

The modern day sheriff is generally considered the chief law enforcement officer in the county. In addition to criminal investigations and responding to law enforcement related call, the sheriff is responsible for operating the county jail; security in the court system; serving civil papers; and transporting prisoners and mental patients to and from various facilities. Today’s sheriff must develop good working relationships with all local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.

North Carolina has 100 counties and 100 sheriffs. One is female.

Not an untypical day in the life of a sheriff involves meeting with office staff, jail staff or 911 staff on the day’s activities; handling dozens of telephone calls and emails; dealing with walk-in visits from citizens with various issues; one, two or more meetings dealing with any number of issues; looking at budgets, signing off on purchase orders, invoices and other financial documents. The sheriff will greet judges and other court officials for the day’s one, two or more courts that may be going on. This list could continue for several more paragraphs.

Today’s sheriff runs a multi-million dollar operation like a business. He must have a good sense as to how to run that business. His product is “service” and the public are his customers. Today’s modern sheriff must be a skilled businessman, understand how to deal with both the public and his staff; have an extremely good working knowledge of both criminal and civil law; and do all this with the sense of fairness and understanding of human nature. Next time I’ll discuss what is needed to do all this and serve in the most powerful position in county government.