The need for this critical office is resounding. While the United States Constitution does not mention the word "sheriff," the ancient text of the Mgna Charta, which goes back to 1215, mentions the role of the sheriff nine times, indicating the importance even then that was attached to this officer. In our country, all of the states, with the exception of Alaska, have created the position of sheriff, though the method of their selection and their duties vary somewhat.
We have only two states in which sheriffs are not elected by the voters. In Rhode Island, sheriffs are appointed by the Governor; and in Hawaii, deputy sheriffs serve with the Department of Public Safety, Sheriffs Division.
The story is told that when Vice President Lyndon Johnson was bragging on all the smart men congregated around President John F. Kennedy, Johnson’s old Texas mentor, Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, commented, "I’d feel a whole lot better, Lyndon, if just one of them had run for sheriff."
In other words, the office itself denotes strength, but also wisdom in the ways of humankind.
The image of the American sheriff has been vivid since the time of the wild west when, as chief lawman of an unruly town, the sheriff brought justice to bear. It’s true enough that while perhaps the sheriff’s role in Tombstone, Laredo, Tucson, and Santa Fe has been exaggerated into movie fantasy land, there is no doubt that office provided a steadying hand to development of the American west.
The office of sheriff was first created twelve hundred years ago in England. The position evolved out of the unit of local government called a shire, which is equivalent to the American county. The Anglo Saxon word for "chief" was "reeve." Therefore, the chief of the shire became known as the "shire-reeve"—or what eventually became the modern English word "sheriff."
The duties of sheriff vary from state to state, but have included the responsibility of collection taxes all the way back to the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the sheriff was an agent of the king. The duties of sheriff in most states today include chief law enforcement officer in the county, collecting property taxes, providing bailiff services for the courts, and in some states, even being in charge of the local jail.
Closer to home, the reputation and statute of the local sheriff have not only been maintained here in the South—and especially in Kentucky—but enhanced. In spite of Hollywood’s silly attempts to portray the typical southern sheriff as being a swaggering, white, gum chewing racist, the truth of the matter is this corps of lawman has evolved into a highly professional and competent cadre of public servants. Hollywood needs to go elsewhere and find other subjects to malign when it comes to racial prejudice. There are currently thirteen black sheriffs in the deep south state of Mississippi. Alabama has the second largest number of black elected officials in the nation. This does not even take into account the numerous minority representatives who fill the many deputy sheriff slots throughout the entire south.
It has been my privilege for over thirty years now to work on a daily basis and up close with the sheriffs of rural west Kentucky. They have been of tremendous assistance to me in carrying out my duties as Commonwealth Attorney and Circuit Judge. They have been individuals of the utmost integrity, loyalty, and devotion to duty.
In my four county 56th Judicial Circuit, we have had one sheriff shot serving papers, a deputy whose throat was cut transporting a prisoner, and a sheriff that probably died from the stress of the office. This is not to even take into account all of the other physical and verbal abuse that they endure at least on a weekly basis. The common thread, which ran through them all, has been a dedication and commitment to the people of their county at all hours and times of the day or night. Whether it’s two o’clock in the afternoon or two o’clock in the morning, they stand ready to serve and defend. No other profession that I know has taken such great pains to improve the quality of their lot by continual education, certification, and adherence to professionalism as have the sheriffs.
We are indeed fortunate to have our elected sheriffs. The next time you see one, tell him so!