History of the Sheriff

The Office of the Sheriff has existed for over one thousand (1000) years and is the oldest law enforcement position in the United States. The word Sheriff is derived from the Shire-reeve, who was the most powerful English law authority figure, even before 1000 A.D. The Shire-reeve was responsible for both the order of the land within his banded group (shire) and the call of the “hue and cry”. The hue and cry made every citizen in earshot of the sheriff™s call lawfully obligated to join a posse, or group, which banded to catch criminals.

Historian W. Morris wrote in his book about sheriffs that “The office of the sheriff is one of the most familiar and most useful to be found in the history of English institutions,…,with the single exception of kingship, no secular dignity now known to English-speaking people is older.” Writer Walter H. Anderson, in his book, stated that “The office of the sheriff is one of antiquity” and “is the oldest law enforcement office known within the common-law system and it has always been accorded great dignity and high trust.”

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his The value of Constitutions, that “there is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the county sheriff whose role as a peace officer goes back at least to the time of Alfred the Great.” All of these men have shown the possibility that even though there may have been sheriff like people in other cultures and times, today™s sheriff is essentially a direct descendant of the English sheriffs.

The Magna Carta was written and signed by King John in 1215 A.D. The sheriffs had already existed and were known under this sir title. Sheriffs had been recognized as principle participants in the drama of government, seated just under the crown™s barons in hierarchy. Their duties and responsibilities mostly carried over as America was established.

The English creation of the sheriff and the common law was forged through the earlier influence of morals and values from the Angles, Saxons, and the Normans. Their belief in home rule over government control spawned the establishment of the tuns (towns) that eventually became the tenths of land that banded together to fight in their wars. As the tenths banded into hundredths and small counties formed (reeves), they needed to be headed by a chief, called a gerefa. The garefa eventually became the word reeve in the Saxon language. The garefas and the chiefs of the smaller tenths, known as tithingmen, possessed both tribal judicial and tribal police authority. There was no government centralization until in 827 A.D. This is when Egbert, King of Wessex won the loyalty of all the people in the tribes, newly referred to as “Englishmen”. Alfred the Great created a system of freemen pledging the good behavior of their neighbor, in sort of a prototype neighborhood watch. A reeve was created to sound an alarm when criminals escaped from the jail. This alarm was the repeated shouting of the words hue and cry and ironically was the ancestor of the citizen™s arrest.

England continued to expand and the larger, more modern, counties formed and were called shires. The reeves put in charge of the large counties were called shire reeves in order to distinguish them from the smaller county reeves. England then became a very war torn country; there was the Norman Invasion, the fall of Hastings and the subsequent end to Saxon rule over England. The Norman influence over England only strengthened the power of the sheriff. He became government oriented and lost his home rule ideology. As government taxed the people the sheriff took on a new responsibility to enforce taxation. Norman rule, however, was greatly abusive and faced constant rebellion from the Englishmen. In 1199 Richard the Lionhearted died and his despotic brother, John, inherited the throne and pushed the crown to its limit. His own barons and sheriffs rebelled against him and he was forced to sign the prior mentioned Magna Carta.

This document became the proverbial “cornerstone” from which the British and American governments were to proliferate their power. There were at the very least, nine (9) mentions of the office of sheriff in the Magna Carta By the year 1300, the Sheriff was the executive and administrative leader of the county, also tax collector and head of the local military and the court.

As colonies were established, the sheriff™s office was copied into the local culture and law. The first such transition of the English Sheriff to American soil was in Virginia in 1634. Sheriff™s were still appointed by the King and was an extension of royal authority and representative of the King. There is a record of a sheriff being elected by popular vote as early as 1651, but this was highly irregular for the rules of the era.

As the western frontier was explored, the sheriff™s office also moved into establishment out west. Settlers became the targets and prey of Indians, thieves and bandits. Everyone needed to protect their gold and oil. The sheriffs of the west became very busy in a hostile environment, becoming sub-divided into two (2) categories, the quick and the dead.

Today the functions of the sheriff are influenced by the social and political climates of a modern society. People still elect their top law enforcement officials in their counties. Even citizens with no law enforcement experience run for the office. The Sheriff is to keep the peace, quell riots and disorders. Sheriff’s are empowered to appoint deputies to assist him in the performance of his duties. The Sheriff is also invested with the power of “Posse Comitatus” (the power of the county), which he may call upon the entire population of the county above the age of 15 to assist him in certain cases, to aid in keeping the peace, in pursing and arresting felons.

The sheriff must satisfy his constitutional obligations by enforcing the nations laws, protecting the lives and property of it™s people, and safeguarding the health and morals of the community. Modern sheriff duties are performed by order of the people, instead of by order of a King or Queen. Sheriffs can maneuver through court battles involving a challenge to their authority and always come out successfully when they address the legal protections of their office concerning their constitutional obligations, and no legal system or authority in the United States can challenge it with any standing. The sheriff of today is still the great protector of his county.

(Based on the National Sheriff™s Association booklet: The Role Of The Sheriff; Past, Present, Future)