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: