Stance- Sheriffs deserve the support of their locally elected officials. We need to ensure that mayors, elected judges, county administrators, and city council members are pro-police.
Say the word “sheriff”, and most listeners will likely conjure up mental imagery of the Wild Wild West, complete with gunslingers and revolver duels. While the “cowboy swagger” days may not quite be the same today, the position of sheriff remains in the majority of the United States. And yet despite the history, the folklore, and the legacy of the local sheriff, the lone elected law enforcement position in the country stands against opposition and dwindling support in the modern world. Why is this? What happens if the local sheriff as we know ceases to exist? It is imperative that we find the answer and the solutions to this question, as sheriffs continue to play an integral and irreplaceable role among our law enforcement jurisdiction.
Many citizens may not realize the difference between the sheriff and the police. The sheriff is the only position elected into office among all law enforcement positions. While not every state elects sheriffs into terms, this is the case for 46 states. The idea behind the election of a sheriff is that the position is subject to a higher degree of direct accountability from the population that voted the individual into office. The sheriff’s office is not directly governed by the county board, supervisors, or the mayor, but the budget for this department is controlled, usually by the county commissioner. It’s an interesting balance of power, and unfortunately in some cases this lack of budgetary control and oversight can lead to a loss of support for the sheriff’s department. Sheriffs are elected to a variety of term lengths ranging from two-to-six years, and the majority of states electing sheriffs allows them to run as partisan candidates. This electoral process allows voters to have more control and “say” when it comes to their local law enforcement decisions, as the sheriff often has some jurisdiction over police operations.
In some areas of the country, particularly the southern regions and the more rural parts, sheriffs can be the sole source of law enforcement in a large territory. Local residents rely on the services of their local sheriff to feel safe in their homes. And yet, these sheriffs are often running on thin staffs and demanding schedules, having to cover large areas of territory with lower staff numbers than a larger municipality’s police force. In research conducted by the Times West Virginian, many county sheriff departments have deputies working graveyard shifts “on call”, and others are overlapping coverage with local police to make sure that ends are met.
The value of the sheriff’s office cannot be underestimated, which is why these departments must have support not just from voters but also from fellow elected officials and board members. The sheriff is a position visible to the public and accountable to the voters. And in a time in which many citizens actually trust police and law enforcement to a higher degree than their members of Congress, it’s important to ensure that law enforcement is not only held to a high standard but also is given the tools necessary to properly protect and serve citizens.
Another support issue faced time and time again is lack of voter support. When it comes to funding, sheriff departments often rely on a fair distribution of tax revenue that is shared among multiple departments. When the revenue and how it’s spent is controlled by those outside of the sheriff’s department, the budget can often be distributed unevenly. In addition, voters may turn down the idea of a tax levy or any other increase when they are either saddled with too many increases as it is or don’t fully understand the impact of their “no” vote.
During a 2017 election in Madera County, California, voters failed to approve the passage of a one percent sales tax increase in unincorporated areas of the county that would have then been distributed to multiple departments, including that of the sheriff. The measure failed to pass with a “no” vote percentage of just over 55 percent. This is an example of poor funding management and a poor perception held by voters, as negative feedback for this measure included sentiments of frustration that current tax revenue had not been budgeted fairly in the past. Because of this pattern of behavior, voters are hesitant to approve another tax increase, when they feel their money has not been wisely or fairly used in the past. This behavior has a massive trickle down effect that is felt in devastating ways by the sheriff’s department.
In some cases, the sheriff is forced to shutter its doors. A lack of funding affects not only sheriff’s departments, but other necessary public services such as firefighting and police. Remember: some areas fully rely on sheriffs to protect their communities. What happens if a sheriff’s office cannot properly staff its department? In many cases, deputies are then subjected to longer hours, which can increase their level of fatigue on the job and lead to a dangerous situation. Facilities must be maintained, and logistical elements such as telecommunications and networks are integral parts of the success or failure of law enforcement to properly protect the citizens whose safety it is responsible for.
These are just a few of the potentially devastating effects that a lack of support for the local sheriff and for law enforcement in general can contribute to. For these reasons and more, it’s important that we as voters elect officials and commissioners who will remain true to the integrity and preservation of the sheriff’s department. The sheriff holds a personal level of accountability to the voters who put them into office, but when they are not given the tools to achieve that accountability, the entire system is put into jeopardy.
Voter education, proper handling of revenue funds, and a deeper understanding of the impact that sheriff’s departments have on their communities will help forge a path forward for improved support. The majority of states in the country use the services of the sheriff. It’s important that these states also do right by their sheriff’s and allow them to do their job, creating a safer community for the voters who trusted them with their votes.
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