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Police, Sheriffs or Something Else Altogether?

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

What's the Difference Between a Police Department and a Sheriff's Office? Which one is "better"?

One of the things that make America so unique is the relative youth of our nation. So many nations across the globe are the result of evolution. If you want to understand why their government is designed the way it is, you need a history lesson. Sometimes, that history lesson may read more like a soap opera. Sometimes the way they do things is the result of the way something evolved. In other words, it’s not necessarily the best way to do it.

The United States, on the other hand, found itself coming into its own during the enlightenment. Our founding fathers had the luxury of basically designing a system from the ground up in the way they thought best. It didn’t evolve, it was designed with the intention of creating the most effective type of system possible by which to govern a free people. Now this is, of course, a very general way to look at the situation. The reality is that, the system of government we now utilize is assuredly victim to some of the evolutionary tendencies that some of our neighbors across the sea have to deal with in their systems. But, by and large, one of the strengths of our system is that it was designed instead of evolved. Our founders understood that governing was a science that was worthy of their deep consideration and study.

In many ways, we’ve taken a very clear and settled course on how we want our law enforcement system to look. As a people largely distrustful of government, we’ve passed on the centralized policing employed by others in favor of law enforcement that is largely centered around local governments. However, we aren’t completely settled on how those local law enforcement agencies should be managed. In most places, it’s not unusual to find multiple agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and completely different forms of management. Typically, cities employ police departments and counties utilize sheriffs. In most cases, the police departments are led by appointed chiefs and the sheriff’s offices are led by elected sheriffs.

So, which of these styles is more appropriate for effective policing in a modern America?

Of the two models, the office of the sheriff is certainly the older. It is more the result of evolution, whereas the chief model (and the city forms of government with which it is associated) were more deliberately designed. The sheriff is typically an officer of the county. In most places, the county is the arm of the state. That is, when the state was formed a group of people sat down to design the state they looked at a map and broke the state up into sections. Each section was tasked with carrying out the most basic level of government for the people in that section. That’s where a county comes from. When states were formed, they had to create a state constitution and state statutes that outlined the way that its counties would be run. That’s where the sheriff is usually mentioned. Along with various other officials, he is usually elected by the people to fulfill some basic governmental functions. The setup for county government is usually determined by the state constitution or state statutes, so the county can’t typically change their own government setup. Generally, counties could be considered an arm of the state government.

Whereas counties were usually designed by the state government many years ago, cities tend to pop up on their own within an existing county. The purpose of a city is to provide a greater level of service than what the county provides. If a certain area of a county becomes especially populated, the people there may decide they want a higher level of service than what the county gives them. They may want more streetlights, sidewalks, parks and more police coverage. That’s where a city comes from. These people can form a city, pay taxes above and beyond what they are paying to the county, and then have all these “extras”. Cities can also pass their own laws, which are usually called “ordinances”. They can largely determine how they want their government to look in terms of setup. City law enforcement agencies are typically referred to as police departments, although the term “city marshal” was common in the past. Police Departments are typically led by a chief. Larger cities often call their leaders a commissioner. Chiefs are typically appointed. Who does the appointing depends on the type of governmental structure that the city employs. The more common forms of city government are a strong mayor government or a council-manager government. In the strong mayor government, the person who runs the city is an elected mayor. He or she usually appoints the police chief. In a council-manager government, an elected group of council-members hire a professional city manager to run the day to day operations of the city. That manager will usually appoint the police chief.

Generally speaking, cities seem to run more efficiently than counties. They employ systems that are designed for efficiency and effectiveness, where tried and tested administrative principals are built into the system. Their ability to more easily change their governmental structures as research reveals better ways of doing things means they are often more efficient than their county counterparts. In a council-manager system, the police chief answers directly to the city manager, who answers to the elected members of the city council. Counties, on the other hand, are often a jumbled mess. Like cities, they normally have an elected council or commission. However, the various department heads (such as the sheriff) are also elected. That means that the commission may control the sheriff’s budget, but the sheriff doesn’t work for them. To a very large extent, he or she can do whatever they want.

So which system is better?

Like so many things in life, that depends on the situation. In America, we have a very strong tradition of “civilian control”. At the Federal level, the leaders in the military are subject to the control of non-military civilians. The joint chiefs of staff answer to the secretary of defense and, ultimately, to the president. Law enforcement is treated the same. Those that lead the FBI and the other law enforcement agencies ultimately answer to an elected president. That’s generally a good thing. When those with guns and/ or the power of arrest don’t have significant oversight, things tend to get out of hand. Think military coup and other such situations. While local governments don’t have militaries, the civilian oversight concept is still a good idea. Local law enforcement agencies have a tremendous amount of power. Power is always subject to abuse. The wild west was full of examples of how local law enforcement authority could be abused. Those looking to run a town often formed alliances with local law enforcement officials. That general situation played into the infamous showdown at the OK Corral in Tombstone. Examples aren’t limited to the western states in the 1800s. Shortly after WWII, a group of local veterans returned home to McMinn County, TN to find that their families were being exploited by a corrupt sheriff’s office. When they tried to address the issues at the voting booth, the political machine pushed back. Hordes of outsiders were deputized and began intimidating the local populace. The rogue lawmen then unlawfully took the ballot boxes back to the jail in order to make the election go their way. In what became known as the Battle of Athens, the local veterans laid siege to the jail until the ballot boxes were recovered and counted. Law enforcement leaders hold a great deal of power. Making those leaders directly accountable to “civilian” oversight may help prevent that authority from being abused.

But law enforcement leaders aren’t the only type of leaders that can abuse power. Many police chiefs have stories about the difficulty of maintaining the ethics of their profession while not getting on the bad side of the mayors or city managers they answer to. Modern law enforcement officers are trained from the very beginning of their careers in ethics. They know that there are certain things that are simply off limits. The mayors and city managers that they work for often don’t understand these prohibitions. This often puts honest chiefs in awkward situations. It’s bad enough when disagreements are caused by misunderstandings, but even worse when city managers or mayors decide to simply misuse their authority for their own gain. A mayor or city manager can be corrupted by power just as easily as a police official. Sometimes, even easier. I’ve been personally involved in a situation where I found it necessary to bring unethical actions by my non-sworn supervisors to the attention of the public and city council, and it very nearly cost me my career.

Each of these systems has its strengths and weaknesses.

Besides their respective issues with accountability and oversight systems, police and sheriff setups have other significant differences. Jurisdiction is another difference. As a sheriff’s jurisdiction consists of an entire county, they are more likely to cover a larger geographic area. Remember that every city is inside of a county. A city is generally supposed to provide service above and beyond what a county provides. That means that a sheriff typically has jurisdiction inside of a city. In most places, the sheriff chooses to focus his or her efforts patrol efforts outside of the city, where they are the only form of law enforcement available to the citizens there.

There are also significant differences in the actual duties of a sheriff’s office and a police department. In the same way that a police department is responsible for a small area of the sheriff’s geographic jurisdiction, they are also responsible for a small slice of his or her type of duties. In addition to the patrol and investigative duties that we usually associate with a police department, a sheriff is also responsible for many other justice system functions. A sheriff typically runs a jail where all the prisoners in the county are taken and housed. A sheriff’s office usually provides security for the local courts. We call these deputies bailiffs. The sheriff is also responsible for a number of other duties, such as serving process papers on behalf of the court.

To further complicate matters, everything I’ve just described is extremely general. America uses a federal system of government, where each of the 50 states has the authority to decide for itself how it will arrange things. That means that there are numerous exceptions and difference throughout the US with regards to these systems.

Furthermore, many states and localities have begun to experiment with different ways of doing things. In some of the more populous northeastern states, sheriff’s offices don’t do any kind of patrolling. In Massachusetts for example, every square inch of the state is incorporated. It doesn’t make sense for a county to provide patrol services, when the entire state is covered in cities that can do it. In other places, such as the Atlanta Metropolitan area, sheriff’s offices have been largely supplanted by county police departments. The vast majority of these largely urban counties are covered by cities who provide police patrol services. The county employs a police department to patrol the unincorporated areas. The chiefs of these county police departments answer to the local elected government, as opposed to being elected like a sheriff. Although these counties still have elected sheriffs, they typically just fulfill the various “other” duties discussed previously: running a jail, serving court papers, and providing court security.

The various systems employed in the US are admittedly confusing and, quite often, inefficient. However, it’s important to remember that we have such a convoluted system because we are a federal system of government. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once described the system as a “laboratory of democracy”, meaning that the system is designed for experimentation and evolution. It’s a confusing, complicated system. But, ultimately, it’s one that encourages constant evolution toward something better.

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