The elected sheriff: Medieval tradition shows flaws in modern times

“It’s the oldest constitutional office in the state,” said Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. “We had sheriffs in North Carolina before we had counties.”

Just because something is old, doesn’t mean it’s good. Increasingly, critics of the sheriffs’ office have wondered whether it should still be an elected position and, if it must be, whether it should require law enforcement training.

But defenders of the sheriff’s office think it’s a crucial part of state democracy.

The word “sheriff” –– derived from “shire reeve” –– is a holdover from America’s colonial past and has its roots in medieval England. Shires, or local government units, were overseen by three officials: the earl, the sheriff, and the bishop.

In North Carolina, the sheriff is written into the state’s constitution as an elected office.

Across the nation, popular election is the almost uniform means of selection of the sheriff. Sheriffs are elected to four-year terms in 41 states, and the race is partisan in all but one.

According to Fred Wilson, director of the National Sheriffs’ Association, only 20 of the country’s 3,083 sheriffs are not elected. Wilson believes sheriffs should be elected to preserve the democratic process.

“We believe the people should have a choice in who provides for the public’s safety,” Wilson said.

Whether sheriffs should be elected or not, most agree there should be minimum requirements for who can run. In North Carolina, even a convicted felon can run for sheriff, and this year, six candidates around the state are doing just that.

In addition, sheriffs aren’t required to have any law enforcement training or experience, despite serving as the county’s top law enforcement official.

Robert Joyce, a lawyer and faculty member at UNC- Chapel Hill’s Institute of Government, said it’s up to the state constitution to spell out requirements for elected office.

“If you meet those qualifications, you are eligible to be elected,” Joyce said.

There is only one criteria currently imposed for elected officials: they must be eligible to vote for the office they seek to hold. In North Carolina felons who have served their full sentence regain their right to vote and, therefore, to serve as sheriffs.

To require additional credentials, the state would have to amend its constitution.

Eddie Caldwell likes the system the way it is, except for the part about felons.

“The Sheriffs’ Association believes the best arbiter, the best decision-maker of who ought to be sheriff are the residents of the county,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell said the office’s basic requirements are integrity and the ability to provide leadership. Because the separate skills associated with today’s sheriff’s departments are so varied, law enforcement experience can’t be the basis for election.

“There’s a variety of experience that is necessary to successfully serve as sheriff,” Caldwell said. “And we believe the people should decide who they think has the right combination of skills.”

That apparently didn’t work out so well in Buncombe County, however, where voters re-elected Sheriff Bobby Medford despite his underground dealings in an illegal video poker racket, which he was eventually sent to jail for.

As for felons on the ballot, Caldwell said the sheriffs’ association supported a bill it lost by a vote in the General Assembly last year that would put forward a constitutional amendment to ban them from the office. The association plans to lobby for it again this year.

John Midgette –– executive director of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, which represents 4,500 police officers around the state –– thinks the office needs more updating than that.

“It’s a system that’s archaic and dates back to when we were a colony of England,” Midgette said. “While many sheriffs are fine individuals, we have a system in this country that essentially defies the checks and balances system.”

Midgette believes the first step in reforming the office is to ban felons, but he also believes the office should require some level of law enforcement training or give up the power of arrest.

“If you’re going to give someone the powers of arrest, the citizens should be assured that the person has the appropriate training to exercise that power,” Midgette said.

Midgette believes the job description of sheriffs has evolved dramatically while the definition of the office has remained frozen in time. Sheriffs’ deputies traditionally functioned as jailers and court bailiffs and performed limited law enforcement functions. These days, though, sheriff’s departments do everything from enforcing traffic laws to operating drug interdiction programs to child abuse investigations.

The office has expanded and so has the need for training.

“The bottom line is, with all due respect to sheriffs, in the early 1950s when the office was codified, I don’t think anyone expected the sheriffs’ departments to be full service law enforcement entities,” Midgette said.

Bob Scott, who reached the rank of captain in the Macon County Sheriff’s Department, also believes that if the sheriff’s office is to remain an elected position, it should lose its law enforcement responsibilities.

“In Western North Carolina, the most expensive political race for county office is always the sheriff,” Scott said. “Should a sheriff be accepting contributions from someone he may some day have to arrest? If it’s a big contributor, do you think that might affect the way they enforce the law?”

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