Do you have questions? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer them here.
These questions arose as a result of the recent election results.
Q. I know the Sheriff is an elected official. Thank you, Tombstone. 😉 But what are the differences in jurisdiction between police and a member of the sheriff’s department? When is the sheriff’s office called in? Do the police and sheriff’s office work closely together or are they very separate entities?
A. The policing system in the United States is really complicated! Some countries have just one police system, controlled at the federal level, but we have literally thousands of local, state, and federal agencies. Each agency has a specific jurisdiction, but they often overlap.
Yes, sheriffs are almost always elected. The people who work for them are called deputies, and the sheriff system dates all the way back to medieval times. You can read about their history here.
Sheriffs are generally elected at the county level. Their job usually encompasses rural areas. They also often run the jail. And in many cases, the sheriff is also the coroner (another policing job with medieval roots), which means the sheriff’s office is responsible for investigating certain deaths. In some places, deputies may also be charged with serving certain legal papers such as subpoenas.
Most towns and cities have their own police department. The head of that department is usually called the chief, and is usually appointed rather than elected. Urban police departments have jurisdiction in the city. This form of policing is a little newer, with its clearest antecedent being the London Metropolitan Police, founded by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.
So the main difference between a sheriff’s department and an urban police department is location and specific duty. Each agency is a separate entity, with separate leadership and sometimes differing philosophies and procedures.
But there are complications. In California, instead of having their own police department, many small towns contract with the sheriff’s department for law enforcement services. Furthermore, physical and subject matter jurisdictions may overlap. For example, if a corpse shows up, the sheriff’s office may take charge of the autopsy, while the city’s homicide detectives may investigate the death overall. In the case of a large or complicated crime, either agency may ask the other for assistance. And there are also many specialized state or federal agencies that could become involved–the Highway Patrol, DEA, and the FBI are a few examples of this.