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The Political Power of Sheriffs Is Rarely Seriously Challenged

Sheriffs argue that being elected makes them directly accountable to voters, but the reality is that few face real competition.

Monroe County, Fla., Sheriff Rick Ramsay stands beside his county vehicle
Monroe County, Fla., Sheriff Rick Ramsay has been with the office since 1987.
Facebook/Rick Ramsay
Editor's Note: This article appears in Governing's Summer 2024 magazine. You can subscribe here.

Rick Ramsay is running this fall for a fourth term as sheriff of Monroe County, Fla. He should have no trouble. Running unopposed during his previous two re-election campaigns, in 2016 and 2020, he raised a grand total of $300 in campaign donations.

Ramsay’s ability to continue a long political career without facing opposition is not unusual, at least when it comes to sheriffs. Sheriff Michael Ashe of Hampden County, Mass., served for 42 years without once facing a challenger for re-election. When Houston County, Ga., Sheriff Cullen Talton announced he would not run for re-election this year, he had already served for more than 50 years.

In our new book — the first extended academic study focused on sheriffs in more than a century — we argue that the electoral nature of the office does not function as a democratic check on sheriffs or their behavior. There are several ways elections fail to provide accountability. Sheriff elections are mostly uncompetitive, attracting limited pools of candidates that incumbents themselves work to shape and limit. In one recent cycle, 40 percent of them ran unopposed.

Political insularity has also made them something of a throwback. Nationwide, 98 percent of sheriffs are men and 92 percent of them are white. While the number of women prosecutors increased 34 percent between 2015 and 2019, there was no similar rise among women holding office as sheriff, or even running for the office.

A background in law enforcement is a given, with 99 percent having worked in the field and 78 percent having worked for their own offices prior to election. In a survey we conducted in 2021, more than half the sheriffs had gone to high school in their current counties.

Char showing the gender and racial makeup of sheriffs chart
The Power of the Badge

Ramsay exemplifies that sort of rootedness. He started working for the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office back in 1987, at the age of 21. A highly decorated deputy, he commanded various divisions before becoming deputy chief and eventually winning the top job. His office has a crime clearance rate of 43 percent, which is well above the rates of similarly sized offices in other Florida counties.

Sheriffs occupy an exceptional place in the American political system. They are bureaucrats who hold the legitimate right to harm and kill people; they are influential elected officials with very few checks on their power; and they both set and implement a wide range of significant policies.

The Long History of the Office

The role dates back at least to 10th-century Norman England. From colonial times, sheriffs in the South were regularly tasked with organizing slave patrols, and controlling enslaved people more generally. Given that sheriffs had to fund their offices with fees and fines, the rewards associated with catching enslaved individuals served as strong motivation.

States generally task the sheriff with securing courthouse facilities and running jails, as well as broad responsibilities such as preserving the peace and arresting individuals committing crimes. States also grant sheriffs additional responsibilities that range from executing warrants and facilitating work-release programs to handling K9 programs.

Their powers vary by region and even within states. In the Northeast and South, highly populated counties have separate police agencies that carry out most law enforcement activities, with the sheriff only managing the jail and providing courthouse security.

In some states, certain powers of the office are set by statute, but sheriffs frequently highlight their own power and autonomy by noting that they are independently elected and their authority is generally vested in state constitutions. Of the 46 states with elected sheriffs, 38 established the office in their original constitutions, with the other eight adopting sheriff elections after statehood. According to sheriffs, their constitutional origins differentiate them from other law enforcement positions and elevate them from a department to an office, protecting them from sway or control by other local leaders.

In recent years, a fair number of sheriffs have refused to carry out laws and regulations regarding matters such as gun control, immigration enforcement and COVID-19 mandates. “Sheriff’s offices nationwide are the best protection against advancing tyranny by state and federal governments,” one sheriff told us. “I never used to believe this until I had to personally, as sheriff, oppose unconstitutional decisions being foisted on this country and state in the interest of progressive ideology.”

Voters Given Little Choice

Sheriffs argue that elections keep the office independent of other influences and makes them directly accountable to voters. But studies of local elections have shown that citizens typically don’t cast votes for sheriff based on performance, their preferences for criminal justice policies or even local crime rates. Instead, they vote based on the economy, assumptions about ideology and endorsements.

When it comes to sheriffs, voters often have little choice. Many rural counties have small populations to begin with and, with local law enforcement experience being practically a prerequisite, sheriffs find themselves in a unique position. They control the pool of political competition by directly managing those individuals who might one day challenge them for the job.

Sheriffs control the pool of potential competitors, managing most individuals who might one day run against them.
The need to suppress potential opponents from within their own subordinate ranks leads to a wide set of bad behaviors by sheriffs. Deputies who’ve run against their own bosses have faced demotion and sometimes been fired. Deputies do not even need to actually run for office to face these actions from a sheriff; many suffer consequences for simply supporting a sheriff’s opponent. When a sheriff gets sued for retaliation, it’s the county that pays the settlement, not the sheriff himself.

In the sheriff’s office, employees, budgets and jails can be used for political gain. By controlling the jails, sheriffs can run what amount to patronage operations, with large numbers of county employees depending on them for their jobs. Since the 1990s, sheriffs’ share of county employees and payroll has increased by 20 percent. Having more employees furthers the sheriff’s ability to control his potential political opponents.

Most sheriffs’ budget requests are honored by county commissioners or other county boards. When they are not, sheriffs have been known to issue statements or social media posts offering warnings such as “you might want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

Sheriffs also raise funds by charging other jurisdictions for housing their prisoners. More controversially, they use civil asset forfeiture as a tool for purchasing equipment. In civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement agencies seize funds and property from those who interact with the criminal justice system. A small part of this revenue is obtained after a criminal conviction, but law enforcement agencies acquire the majority of their forfeiture revenue from civil asset forfeiture, which does not require a conviction for a crime. A higher share of sheriffs’ offices than police departments report revenues from asset forfeiture. Despite criticism due to abuses, sheriffs have pushed back hard against state legislative efforts to rein in the practice.

PR Patrols

While almost all sheriffs run jails and provide courthouse security, most also engage in a wide set of community activities that fall under the umbrella of “law enforcement” or keeping the peace. Can a sheriff run an annual summer camp for kids? Yes, many do.

Sheriffs can enforce laws on land and water and in the air. In Monroe County, which includes Key West, Ramsay’s office issues more tickets for undersized or over-limit catches of lobsters than the rest of the state combined. An Instagram post from the office featured a dog known as K9 Deputy Mako on patrol with his handler, measuring lobsters.

K9 Deputy Mako frequently stars in other promotional contexts — up on tables with drug busts, among children in the summer attending the office’s Office Explorers program and serving as a crossing guard to remind drivers to slow down around pedestrians. In fact, K9 Deputy Mako appears almost as frequently on the office’s social media accounts as Sheriff Ramsay.

Monroe County, Fla., Sheriff's vehicle in front of a building

In an open-air area under a jail, Ramsay’s office maintains an animal farm that’s home to more than 150 animals, including creatures such as Hank the armadillo, June Carter the opossum and BamBam the alpaca. It’s staffed by those incarcerated in the jail and is free for the public to access two weekends a month.

As one might suspect, running an animal sanctuary is not listed among the duties of sheriffs in Florida, nor are neighborhood cleanups hosted by Ramsay and his landscaping truck. But in a video for new staff, he states, “It’s a proven fact that cleaner neighborhoods are safer neighborhoods. That’s why you’ll see the sheriff’s office out doing community cleanups ... not just focusing solely on crime prevention or crime investigation, but quality of life. And with this, we are able to prevent crime from occurring. It is critical to have the citizens know us, like us, trust us.”

Like many sheriffs, Ramsay recognizes that his job requires reminding the public about what a sheriff is and does. Sheriffs’ offices work to make their presence in the community more visible. Deputies hand out to children coloring books, stickers and badges with the sheriff’s name. The sheriff’s office in Orange County, Fla., rolls out its mobile video game theater with 11 large screens to better connect with kids.

While sheriffs often connect efforts of involving the community as part of a broader public safety plan, these efforts have an additional, typically unstated, goal: They assist with sheriffs’ re-election. Sheriffs work to form an image of their offices in voters’ minds by engaging in image management for their office. They may seldom face serious electoral competition, but they work hard to keep it that way.

Adapted from The Power of the Badge: Sheriffs and Inequality in the United States by Emily M. Farris and Mirya R. Holman, which will be published in September by the University of Chicago Press.
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