An unusual feature of US law enforcement is the important role of the county sheriff. As of 2013, over 3,000 sheriffs’ offices across 47 U.S. states employed 352,000 people—roughly one-third of the country’s law enforcement personnel. The sheriff’s job varies from state-to-state, but the common denominator is responsibility over county corrections, including the operation of jails and transportation of inmates to and from court. In some states—Massachusetts, for instance—that’s essentially the extent of sheriffs’ duties. In other states, though, sheriffs wield much broader authority. Texas sheriffs, for example, can enforce the state’s criminal laws anywhere in their county, even where municipal police departments have jurisdiction. Most states are somewhere in the middle, tasking sheriffs with general law enforcement duties only in unincorporated parts of the county and sometimes with security for state government buildings, in addition to their correctional responsibilities.
Despite the variety of roles played by sheriffs, many commentators view sheriffs as merely another kind of police. After all, they wear badges, can legally use force, and, in many parts of the country, patrol the beat. But sheriffs are distinct from their police counterparts in significant respects. Most notably, whereas police chiefs are appointed by city officials, sheriffs are popularly elected by the county they serve. And, unlike police departments, which are creatures of state statute, the responsibilities of a county sheriff are often rooted in the state constitution.
These differences render sheriffs more susceptible than police to corruption for three reasons:
- First, sheriffs can abuse funding sources unavailable to local police. For starters, because sheriffs are elected officials, they can plausibly ask constituents for money and have established operations for doing so. Sheriffs use this capability not only to raise campaign funds, but also to fundraise for sheriffs’ foundations––nonprofits that supplement the budgets of sheriffs’ offices outside of the formal budgeting process (see, for example, here and here), though police foundations exist to serve a similar purpose. The New York Times recently reported on one Alabama sheriff whose annual fundraising rodeo nets a yearly profit of $20,000. Due to an IRS loophole for charities associated with government entities, there are no publicly available financial documents showing how the proceeds were processed or spent. Unsurprisingly, funds collected by sheriffs’ foundations are easily put to questionable use (like paying for Christmas parties or baseball tickets) or, occasionally, embezzled. Outside of the fundraising context, sheriffs are sometimes granted financial incentives to reduce costs or generate additional revenue for the office. For example, Alabama sheriffs are entitled to personally keep any surplus funds allocated for prisoner meals, and Vermont sheriffs receive as a supplement to their income a portion of the revenue-generating contracts they negotiate for their offices. Each of these revenue streams—campaign funds, sheriffs’ foundation donations, and incentives—are vulnerable to self-dealing, bribery, and other forms of corruption.
- Second, sheriffs’ unique and (usually) constitutionalized role provides them an exceptional degree of autonomy, which may shield or permit corruption in a number of ways. For one, sheriffs ordinarily have the ability to fire deputies at will, free from restraints on the discharge of other county employees. (For an illustrative case, see this decision by the North Carolina Supreme Court in 2016.) Sheriffs can leverage their at-will authority by threatening to fire employees if they don’t cover up corruption or misuse department time and resources for the sheriff’s personal gain. Even when discharge of a deputy is unlawful—if, say, the deputy was fired for testifying truthfully at trial—sheriffs are often immune from civil suit because the constitutional nature of their office grants them sovereign immunity (in addition to the qualified immunity that all law enforcement officials enjoy). Another display of sheriffs’ autonomy is the free rein they exercise over their budgets. Although county governments set sheriffs’ budgets, they often have no say in how that budget is allocated—ultimately, that’s the sheriff’s decision. And where sheriffs are constitutional officers, counties may be affirmatively required to provide sheriffs enough funds for them to perform their constitutional duties (as in Georgia). This level of budgetary control, with little oversight, lends itself to extravagant spending, misspending of earmarked funds, embezzlement, and kickbacks.
- Third, sheriffs’ offices aren’t scrutinized as closely as police departments because it’s assumed that sheriffs will be kept in check by the ballot box. That may seem like a reasonable assumption, but in practice democratic accountability for sheriffs is an illusion. Sheriffs rarely face a serious challenge at the polls due to a combination of incumbent advantage, low interest in local elections, one-party-dominated counties, and the fact that the most qualified candidates to run against an incumbent sheriff are usually his or her subordinates (who are unlikely to risk their jobs in an uphill race). As a result, sheriffs regularly retain office for decades. One estimate places the average sheriff’s tenure at 24 years. Unfortunately, the illusion of democratic accountability rationalizes a lack of other oversight mechanisms. Police chiefs are supervised by city officials and sometimes civilian oversight boards, but a typical sheriff doesn’t report to anyone but voters. That, in turn, permits sheriffs to be nontransparent. To be sure, some states provide modest oversight over sheriffs, usually in the form of audits or statutes providing for the removal of unruly sheriffs by state officials. But even when a sheriff’s conduct arguably crosses a line, state officials may be hesitant to intervene in a local issue involving a democratically elected official, particularly if the sheriff is a political ally.
Some argue that the problems posed by sheriffs are so significant that the office should be abolished entirely (see here and here) or fundamentally reconstituted (see here). Whether or not those outcomes are desirable, they’re unrealistic in most states (although Connecticut did abolish its sheriffs in 2000). Where sheriffs’ roles are defined in the state constitution, reform may require constitutional amendment, and even where that’s not the case, efforts to curb sheriffs’ independence will be met by fierce political resistance. Sheriffs are well-organized and, as elected officials, well-connected—both within their states and nationwide.
Fortunately, though, even modest reforms could do real good. To increase financial accountability and transparency, state and county officials (perhaps specialized inspector general offices) could regularly audit sheriffs’ offices and then publish the results for popular consumption. States could also impose financial reporting requirements on both sheriffs’ offices and their associated nonprofit foundations. To provide internal checks on sheriffs’ power, states could enact whistleblower protections and close loopholes in civil service laws that exempt sheriffs’ offices. Finally, states could add layers of accountability in addition to voters, such as civilian oversight boards. More generally, anticorruption officials would do well to keep a close eye on sheriffs. Given the sheer number of sheriffs’ offices across the country, state investigators in particular will have to step up to ensure these powerful and independent officials are kept in check.