The American Sheriff: Legends of Law Enforcement

51vRcHOxiPL._SX300_Sheriff Office

The office of sheriff is the oldest form of organized civilian law enforcement in the United States. The English settlers brought the tradition to America. The word sheriff first appeared during Alfred the Great in Wessex, England after the defeat of the Viking invaders. The small villages established civilian patrols under the sheriff to keep watch. The sheriff’s office is oldest civilian law enforcement organization still in existence today.

In America, the five county boroughs of New York City established sheriff offices in 1626 to provide civilian law enforcement to the residents and business (NSA, 2015). Some of the first sheriff offices formed in the English colonies of Maryland in Virginia. Historians believe that the first sheriff office in Maryland was established in St. Mary’s County, Maryland in 1637 (NSA, 2015).

During the settling of America and the westward expansion, many newly formed towns created the position of town marshal or sheriff. This appointed law enforcement officer was usually chosen by the town mayor because they like to fight and were good with a gun. The town marshal or sheriff selected their deputies in the same manner. On many occasions, the local or territorial judge would authorize the town marshal or sheriff to form a posse from local citizens who volunteered to go after Outlaws who were committing crimes and disrupting life. Usually there was a bounty on the wanted person/s.

The sheriff badge has always represented legal law enforcement authority and is an official symbol of the sheriff and deputy sheriff’s. Each sheriff office has designed their own badge of office over the years. Many times the local sheriff badges design included symbols to represent important local values, ideas, and traditions.

Sometime in the 1800s, the sheriff badge design became a star and the tradition last to this day. Some of the sheriff stars have 4, 5, 6, and 7 points. The sheriff star is worn on the left chest of the uniform over the heart as a reminder of the oath to protect and serve with honor. Many sheriff’s offices have used the spelling of name as a core value and guiding principles to the responsibility associated with being an officer of the law.


S – Selflessness

H – Honesty

E – Ethics

R – Respect

I – Integrity

F – Fearlessness

F – Fairness

The majority of Sheriffs in American are elected to office (NSA, 2015). Approximately 98% of sheriffs in America are elected officials and serve in office for 4-year terms (NSA, 2015). In most counties within the state the sheriff is considered the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the county, even if the county has a police department (NSA, 2015).

The majority of sheriff organizations structure is the Sheriff Office and not the Sheriff Department because “office” implies independent powers to perform law enforcement duties without outside government and political influence (NSA, 2015). Each state and county government establishes by state and local law the authority of the sheriff office and what law enforcement duties, jurisdiction, and authority that the sheriff’s office will be responsible and task with performing (NSA, 2015).

The National Sheriff’s Association (2015) stated that there are 3,080 sheriff offices/departments operating in the United States. The only three states that do not have county sheriff offices are Alaska, Connecticut, and Hawaii (NSA, 2015).

The sheriff’s office/department structure can vary greatly. Many have the sheriff at the elected official responsible to manage and lead the department (NSA, 2015). The next highest-ranking law enforcement officer is usually the position of “undersheriff” (NSA, 2015). The law enforcement officers carry the title of deputy sheriff (NSA, 2015).

Some agencies rank structure follows a military tradition of Sheriff, major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, and then deputy sheriff (NSA, 2015). Each sheriff office/department establishes their own structure and they can change when a new sheriff is elected to office (NSA, 2015).

Sheriff Law Enforcement Duties

Each county sheriff office/department is assigned law enforcement responsibilities by the state and county legislative bodies. Not all sheriff offices/departments are full-service law enforcement agencies and their law enforcement duties differ. For example, some county sheriff departments provide courtroom security, prisoner transport, and manage the local county jail and do not perform patrol duties or investigations.

Other sheriff’s offices are limited to patrolling just county government building and parks, while others have full law enforcement responsibilities in their county/city jurisdiction handling all law enforcement related duties such as patrol, investigations, and county crime labs (NSA, 2015). No two county sheriff offices/departments are exactly alike or perform the same law enforcement responsibilities.

LASD-12The largest sheriff organization in the United States is the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with 18,400 deputy sheriffs and civilian employee support staff (LASD, 2015). The smallest sheriff’s office in the United States is the Loving County Sheriff’s Office in west Texas that severs only 82 county residents (LCSO, 2015). The Loving County Sheriff’s Office has a sheriff and two-part deputy sheriffs (LCSO, 2015).

One of America’s most popular and famous sheriff’s is Joe Arpaio of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO, 2015). Sheriff Joe has earned the media nickname of “America’s Toughest Sheriff” for requiring all prisoners in the Maricopa County Sheriff jails to wear pink striped uniforms (MCSO, 2015).

Sheriff Joe's "Tent City"
Sheriff Joe’s “Tent City”

Sheriff Joe also requires that in the county jails and transporting prisoners that they wear pink handcuffs (MCSO, 2015). Sheriff Joe has also established “Tent City” which is a desert outdoor county jail camp made up of surplus military tents with no air condition (MCSO, 2015). In the summer heat of Arizona, the temperatures average 100+ a day and under the canvas tents, the temperature can reach 120+ in the heat of the day.  Sheriff Joe only feeds inmates twice a day to save county taxpayers money (MCSO, 2015). Sheriff Joe has also established work details in which pink and black striped inmates are chained together picking up trash on the county highways and in the communities (MCSO, 2015).

Sheriff Joe has also drawn national attention for his stance on illegal immigration and his monthly arrest parties of deadbeat parents who are behind in their court ordered child support.


Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). (2015). About the LASD. Retrieved from

Loving County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO). (2015). History of the sheriff. Retrieved from

National Sheriff’s Association (NSA). (2015). About the NSA. Retrieved from

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO). (2015). About the MCSO. Retrieved from

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.