Two important characteristics distinguish the office of the Sheriff from other law enforcement departments and make it unique.
- Historical roots
- Direct accountability to citizens through the election process
The sheriff came into existence around the 9th century. This makes it the oldest continuing, non-military, law enforcement entity in history. In early England the land was divided between a few individual kingdoms called shires. The kings in each shire would appoint a representative to protect his interest and people of his particular shire. Those appointed representatives were known as reeves which meant,” guardians of the shire”. Through time and usage the words came together to be Shire-reeve and eventually the word Sheriff developed.
The duties of the sheriff included keeping the peace, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, arresting fugitives, maintaining lists of wanted criminals, serving orders and writs for the Kings Court. Most of those duties are still the foundation of the Sheriff’s responsibilities in the United States, and in other nations. The concept of sheriff, because of the vast British Empire, was exported to places such as Canada, Australia, India, and, of course, the American colonies.
The first sheriff in America is believed to be Captain William Stone, appointed in 1634 for the Shire of Northampton in the colony of Virginia. The first elected sheriff was William Waters in 1652 in the same shire (shire was used in many of the colonies, before the word county replaced it). George Washington’s father was Sheriff of Westmoreland County, Virginia in 1727. Other county sheriffs include Wild Bill Hickock (picture right), Pat Garrett, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and many more. It is believed that the longest serving Sheriff in the United States thus far has been Bernard Shackleton, Lunenburg County, Virginia. He served from 1904-1955, a total of 51 years, a truly impressive record. The first Sheriff of Rockland County was Jacob Wood.
The office of sheriff is not a department of County Government. It is an independent office through which the Sheriff exercises the powers of the public trust. No individual or small group hires or fires the Sheriff, or has the authority to interfere with the operations of the office. The sheriff is accountable directly to the Constitution, statutes, and the citizens of the county. The sheriff however should do his best to work with all entities because it is important in a democratic society that the sheriff be able to work with all segments of government to serve and protect all citizens of the County.