04-30-2016, 03:50 AM
A Historical Perspective of the Office of Sheriff
By Sheriff Roger Scott, Dekalb County, Illinois
When people hear the word sheriff some may think of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, he was the model of community policing before the term was invented, or perhaps Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa Co. Arizona who wrote the book “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” or the Sheriff of Nottingham from the days of Robin Hood. What is your image of sheriff? We certainly hope it is a positive image of your local sheriff. As a member of the National Sheriffs’ Association you know what a sheriff is, but where did the title come from, what makes the Office of Sheriff unique in law enforcement, why should it be called the Sheriff’s Office not a Sheriff’s Department, and why is it important to preserve its direct accountability to the citizens via the election process? It is the goal of this article to provide answers to all these questions.
The first of two important characteristics that distinguish the Office of Sheriff from other law enforcement units is its historical roots. In England, the sheriff 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 between a few individual kings – these geographic areas were called shires. Within each shire there was an individual called a reeve, which meant guardian. This individual was originally selected by the serfs to be their informal social and governmental leader. The kings observed how influential this individual was within the serf community and soon incorporated that position into the governmental structure. The reeve soon became the Kings appointed representative to protect the King’s interest and act as mediator with people of his particular shire. Through time and usage the words shire and reeve came together to be shire-reeve, guardian of the shire and eventually the word sheriff, as we know it today.
The Office of Sheriff grew in importance with increasing responsibilities up to and through the Norman invasion of England in 1066. The duties of the sheriff included keeping the peace, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, arresting fugitives, maintaining a list of wanted criminals, and serving orders and writs for the Kings Court. Most of those duties are still the foundation of the sheriff’s responsibilities in the United States. The responsibilities of the Office of Sheriff in England ebbed and flowed, depending on the mood and needs of kings and government. In 1215 the great document of freedom, the Magna Carta, was reluctantly signed by King John. This document had 63 clauses, 27 of which are related to the restrictions upon, as well as, the responsibilities of the sheriff. Through the passage of time, the English sheriff began to lose responsibility and power, and by the early 1800’s it became largely ceremonial, as it remains today.