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What is the Difference Between a Sheriff and a Police Officer?

A large city's police force might be called in to the scene of a riot.
Many regional police forces are modeled after the London Metropolitan Police.
Police officers are employed by municipalities.
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In the United States, sheriffs and police officers perform very different functions, although both are considered law enforcement and the two organizations may cooperate. The goal of both is to promote public safety and the welfare of the state, through education, regular patrols, and crime investigation. The precise differences between a sheriff and a police officer vary slightly from state to state, which can lead to confusion.

The word “sheriff” derives from the Old English concept of a “shire reeve,” a man who looked out for the interests of the King in a shire, or district, of England. The shire reeve may have sometimes found himself in opposition to the local community, since the position was concerned with sovereignty and the interests of the state. Since at least the 1600s in America, the term “sheriff” has been used to refer to a law enforcement officer.

Police originated in the 1700s to enforce law or “policy.” Obviously, local law enforcement who looked out for the community have been around for much longer. But in the late 1600s and early 1700s, men who worked a “beat” enforcing local laws began to emerge, and they started to be known as policemen. One of the first truly organized police forces was the Metropolitan Police in London, after which many regional police forces are modeled.

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Police officers have a limited local jurisdiction, usually within the boundaries of a city or town. Within their jurisdiction, police work for public safety, citing and arresting people where appropriate. The police also perform a variety of public services including safety education and security within city limits. In a large city, the police department may have an assortment of specialized personnel in departments like the bomb squad or riot police.

A sheriff, on the other hand, enforces law in a county or state. In the United States, the sheriff is an elected official, and he or she swears in an assort of deputies who have similar powers. Sheriffs patrol outside the boundaries of towns and cities, although they can enter police jurisdiction as part of their jobs. In a town without a police department, the civic leaders may request that a sheriff patrol and act as a policeman within city limits.

In many instances, a sheriff's office also acts as the coroner's office. Deaths which require investigation are sent to the coroner. The sheriff also cooperates with an assortment of law enforcement agencies such as local police, the highway patrol, and park or forest rangers.

The process for becoming a sheriff is very similar to that of training to be a policeman. In both cases, candidates take a written examination to qualify. They also submit to a physical examination and a background check. If the candidate passes, he or she is interviewed, and if the interview goes well, the candidate is sent to a training academy. At the academy, the cadet will participate in an academic program which is designed to prepare them for active duty.

In addition, the sheriff or police trainee will learn how to handle firearms, drive a law enforcement vehicle, and perform other necessary tasks. After graduation, the candidate is accepted into the department where he or she interviewed. An applicant may also attend an academy and then apply into a department, although this tends to be more rare.

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Discuss this Article

anon959796
Post 13

@anon165828 Post 5: "There is a lot of scope for corruption within the possible given powers to sheriff departments. Who regulates this? Is there an ombudsman?" There isn't merely much scope; the corruption is literally continuous and enormous. It mostly goes under the radar of the middle class and wealthy because unlike the poor, the poor are often fatigued, fear so much for their safety and lives and those they are friends or family with they won't report any abuse against them or are too poor or unwise to in a very effective way combat the police abuse against them.

anon945901
Post 12

Fresno sheriff tried to serve my daughter a subpoena but weren't able to in the so-called allotted time last year. They have since moved out of state and the a Fresno lawyer sent a subpoena to their new city without going through all the legal processes for sending a subpoena over 250 miles away. What agency would this be reported to?

anon339646
Post 11

@Post 10: If it's the city police, then you can take your grievance over their heads to the city council. If it's the sheriff, I'm not sure but maybe the county commissioners? In either case, if nobody will take your case, then you should get a lawyer.

anon328740
Post 10

I live in Beaumont, Ca. and I was robbed of over a million dollars of tool and shop things. The local police will not even make a police report because the person who did it knows someone high up in the city and one of their own was involved. What can I do?

anon326716
Post 9

In some states, the sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer for each county. They are elected officials, who maintain the jail, are responsible for securing, collecting, storing and maintaining all criminal evidence, are responsible for serving all warrants, capias, evictions and are responsible for patrolling the county enforcing state statues and county ordinances.

Police officers have an appointed chief. Officers are mainly enforcers of city and state laws in municipal towns, cities. Police offices in each county are granted powers in enforcing warrants and capias through the Sheriff's Departments via state statues.

anon250887
Post 7

I think it is important to mention that the roles and responsibilities of sheriff and police departments do vary from state to state.

In Georgia, at least in my county, we have county police, which handle law enforcement county-wide. Several small towns in the county have a city police department as well.

The county sheriff's department, however, is concerned with judicial support: county jail, court order enforcement, arrest warrants, etc.

So in our case it looks more like pre-court and post-court distinctions (e.g. you meet the sheriff only after a judge has done something). I wonder how many other areas have a similar arrangements.

pollick
Post 6

Where I live, the sheriff is an elected official who serves the entire county, but mostly leaves law enforcement in major cities up to municipal police officers. The sheriff rarely goes out on emergency calls himself or herself, but is usually aware of all of the county's law enforcement operations. If a local newspaper or television station needs a quote on an arrest or drug bust or whatever, the sheriff is usually the first person they contact.

It's mostly an administrative position, and there are usually senior deputy sheriffs with years of experience who actually handle the day-to-day operations. Law enforcement training is not a requirement in order to run for the office of sheriff. It does help, though.

Our sheriff actually has more to do with county jail operations than field patrols. She oversees the prison food program and the federal guest prisoner intake and all of those other duties associated with holding prisoners.

anon165828
Post 5

There is a lot of scope for corruption within the possible given powers to sheriff departments. Who regulates this? Is there an ombudsman?

Comparables
Post 4

Often times Sheriffs in counties that have large metropolitan areas get a bad rap.

I used to live in Los Angeles, and the LA County Sheriff Department was often associated with racial profiling. I admit that la county sheriffs have a tough job, but they need to keep focusing on training their officers better. At least they are not as bad as they were in the 90s.

cougars
Post 3

The bit about the origins of the sheriff was interesting. The author stated Shire Reeve might have often found himself in opposition with the local community. This still happens today. The Sheriff is a political position just as much as it is a public safety position. Sometimes the sheriff even ends up at odds with the federal government.

Maricopa County Arizona is a perfect example. The long-standing county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is under investigation by the department of justice for alleged abuse of power. Sheriff Joe has gone after every political opponent in the city of Phoenix, which lies within Maricopa County. He has become one of the most polarizing figures for both law enforcement and the public in Arizona.

anon50781
Post 2

This article is perfect! Is a great definition about sheriff and local police.

Great job!

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