What is a Sheriff?

If you mention the word "sheriff", many people's minds will immediately fill with images of shootouts and gunfights in the Wild West. Such is the power of old movies and television series, which have so magnified the role of the nineteenth-century American sheriff that it is now virtually impossible to think of sheriffs as existing in any other place or time. Most people would be surprised to know that the office of sheriff has a proud history that spans well over a thousand years, from the early Middle Ages to our own "high-tech" era.

With few exceptions, today's sheriffs are elected officials who serve as a chief law-enforcement officer for a county. Although the duties of the sheriff vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the sheriff's office is generally active in all three branches of the criminal justice system: law enforcement, the courts, and corrections.

The Middle Ages

More than twelve hundred years ago, the country we now call England was inhabited by small groups of Anglo-Saxons who lived in rural communities called tuns. (Tun is the source of the modern English word town.) Each tun was divided into groups of ten families, called tithings. The elected leader of each tithing was called a tithingman. The tithings were also arranged in tens. Each group of ten tithings (or a hundred families) elected its own chief. The Anglo-Saxon word for chief was gerefa, which later became shortened to reeve.

During the next two centuries, a number of changes occurred in this system of tithings and hundreds. A new unit of government, the shire, was formed when groups of hundreds banded together. The shire was the forerunner of the modern county. Just as each hundred was led by a reeve (chief), each shire had a reeve as well. To distinguish the leader of a shire from the leader of a mere hundred, the more powerful official became known as a shire-reeve. The word shire-reeve eventually became the modern English word sheriff. The sheriff--in early England , and metaphorically, in present-day America --is the keeper, or chief, of the county.

The king distributed huge tracts of land to various noblemen, who thereby became entitled to govern those tracts of land under the king's authority. Under this new arrangement, it was the noblemen who appointed sheriffs for the counties they controlled. In those areas not consigned to noblemen, the king appointed his own sheriffs.

When English settlers began to travel to the New World , the office of sheriff traveled with them. The first American counties were established in Virginia in 1634, and records show that one of these counties elected a sheriff in 1651. Although this particular sheriff was chosen by popular vote, most other colonial sheriffs were appointed. Just as noblemen in medieval England had depended upon sheriffs to protect their tracts of land, large American landowners appointed sheriffs to enforce the law in the areas they controlled.

As Americans began to move westward, they took with them the concept of county jails and the office of sheriff. The sheriff was desperately needed to establish order in the lawless territories where power belonged to those with the fastest draw and the most accurate shot. Here it is said that sheriffs fell into two categories, the quick and the dead.

The Sheriff Today

In the minds of many Americans, the role of sheriff ended with the taming of the Wild West. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. There are over three thousand counties in the United States today, and almost every one of them has a sheriff. Some cities, such as Denver , St. Louis , Richmond and Baltimore have sheriffs as well.

In the majority of states, the office of sheriff is established by the state constitution. Most of the remaining states have established the office by an act of the state legislature. Alaska is the only state in which the office of sheriff does not exist.

There are only two states in which the sheriff is not elected by the voters. In Rhode Island , sheriffs are appointed by the governor; in Hawaii , deputy sheriffs serve in the Department of Public Safety's Sheriff's Division.

Most sheriffs' offices have a responsibility for law enforcement, a function that dates all the way back to the origins of the office in feudal England . In every state in which the office exists, sheriffs are responsible for maintaining the safety and security of the court. Most sheriffs' offices maintain and operate county jails. For more history on Sheriffs, visit the NC Sheriffs' web page at: www.ncsheriffs.org/history.htm. Information for this article came from this web page.

Anson County Sheriff's Office

The first sheriff of Anson County was appointed in 1753. According to records, his name was Joseph White, Sr., appointed ca. 1749. Anson County has had approximately 55 sheriffs over the 250+ years of the county's history. Sheriff Tommy Allen has served as Sheriff from 1978 to 1994 and 2002 to the present, longer than any other Sheriff in the history of the county. The Sheriff's Office is made up of patrol officers, detectives, office staff, a civil process officer, a non-support officer and one school resource officer, who works at the Anson Middle School . The Sheriff also operates the jail and the 911 emergency communications center.

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