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.
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.