The office of sheriff is “anachronistic,” unaccountable to the public, and should be replaced with a more professional county police department, says a new study.
“There still must be a county law enforcement agency to serve unincorporated municipalities where they exist,” argues the study, published in the March 2018 edition of the Virginia Law Review.
“However, the twentieth century was a story of policing becoming more professionalized, and counties have increasingly found that a professional, dedicated county police department is a better organization to handle law enforcement than a jack-of-all-trades sheriff.”
The study, written by James Tomberlin of the University of Virginia School of Law, said local sheriff’s elections provide minimal accountability since so many incumbents run unopposed.
Quoting former Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca’s response to a question from a citizens’ commission about how he could be held accountable for misconduct— “Don’t elect me”—the author noted that since at least 1932, no incumbent has ever been unseated in Los Angeles County, which hosts the largest sheriff’s department in the United States.
The office of sheriff dates back to the 9th century in England. Even as the power of the office declined after the 13th century, it was given new life in colonial America—and eventually became part of the myth of the West, where upright sheriffs helped tame a lawless frontier.
Today, there are a little over 3,000 sheriffs around the U.S., and their departments employ 352,000 personnel.
While elections nominally make sheriffs accountable to the public for their actions, in practice, voter turnout in local sheriffs’ elections is low, the study said, noting that in rural counties, most qualified replacements for the sheriff would be one of the sheriff’s immediate subordinates, making him or her less likely to want to run against their boss.
Adding to the challenge of public accountability, policing often involves “one-off” discretionary decision-making, which is harder to observe and review than public policy decisions made by politicians.
Municipalities or county governments are currently helpless to affect the conduct of their sheriff’s offices, wrote the author.
The study cited the conflict in 2008 between the small Arizona town of Guadalupe and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who became notorious for his sweeps of local residents suspected of being undocumented immigrants.
Arpaio responded to the mayor’s complaints by saying, “If you don’t like the way we operate, you get your own police department.” But when the mayor said she would consider doing that, Arpaio “raised the stakes two weeks later, stating that he intended to cancel the town’s contract. “
The author contrasted that with Connecticut’s decision to abolish the officer of sheriff following a political battle. He quoted a comment by then-State Rep. Michael P.Lawlor, who said it’s “not a good idea to run a professional agency on a political basis. “
The study advocates merging county and city policing agencies into one department.
The full study can be downloaded here.
This study was prepared by TCR news intern John Ramsey. Readers’ comments are welcome.