Why There Are So Many Bad Sheriffs
In a job with tons of power and practically no oversight from voters, law enforcement or politicians, corruption can be easy to get away with.
No matter how tight the food budget, you can always find ways to cut corners. The state of Alabama sends counties a paltry $1.75 per day to feed each inmate locked up in jail, but sheriffs often manage to spend a good deal less than that. They have a strong incentive to do so. The sheriffs get to keep whatever they don’t spend, which in some cases has reached well into the six figures. Daily ration money adds up.
Tapping into the food fund has become a tradition in Morgan County, which hugs the Tennessee River in the northern part of the state. Back in 2001, a judge ruled that the food served to prisoners was “inadequate in amount and unsanitary in presentation,” and required that nutritionally adequate meals be served. But that court order was violated several years later by the next sheriff, who bought a truckload of corn dogs at a discount, served them up twice daily and pocketed $212,000 from the food fund over a period of three years. So the court order was expanded to state specifically that the food money was to be spent solely on food. Nonetheless, the next sheriff, Ana Franklin, took $160,000 out of the food budget and invested most of it in a used car lot.
She was forced to repay the money and was slapped with a $1,000 fine. Still, the case illustrates a fact of life among sheriffs. They control pots of money with little oversight and a good deal of potential for abuse. Because most are independently elected, there isn’t much that other officials at the local level can do to control them. A police chief may be fired by a mayor or town council for malfeasance or simply on a whim, but short of impeachment, there is usually no way to remove a sheriff -- no matter the offense. “Police chiefs run for their office every day, in the sense that they’re at-will employees,” says Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation, a research organization. “You can’t really fire a sheriff.”
Like many of her peers, Franklin oversees more than a dozen discretionary funds. Morgan County devotes half its annual budget to supporting sheriff’s offices, and can keep an eye on that money. But it has no authority over the rest. So sheriffs are free to shift dollars among the funds as they see fit. “Right now, we really don’t know what comes into those 16 other accounts,” says Ray Long, who chairs the Morgan County Commission. “We don’t have any recourse. When they get into trouble, there’s nothing we can do.”
The money that passes through a typical sheriff’s hands ranges from pistol permit fees and garnishment of prisoners’ wages to cash from the seizure of cars or other assets used in the commission of a crime -- or sometimes when no crime has been charged. “In many states, if the sheriff does something wrong, it’s not clear who’s supposed to do something about it, which means no one is going to do anything about it,” says Mirya Holman, a political scientist at Tulane University who studies sheriffs. “A combination of large budgets and little information provides an environment where corruption is certainly possible, if not probable.”
In most states, the powers of the sheriff are spelled out in the constitution, so there’s little hope of rewriting their list of duties when they abuse their power. And, with more than 3,000 sheriffs elected nationwide, there are always at least a few who do. The vast majority of sheriffs are highly trained professionals managing complex operations that enforce the law, house offenders and treat the mentally ill. Still, accusations of racial profiling and excessive force are common, and there are often a few lawsuits pending for wrongful deaths.
Oddie Shoupe, the sheriff of White County, Tenn., has been sued roughly 50 times since taking office in 2006, sometimes in wrongful death cases. One particular case has recently gained notoriety: A pair of deputies were preparing to “ram” a suspect they were pursuing when Shoupe ordered them by radio to shoot him instead, saying he didn’t want them to risk “tearing up” their vehicle. The district attorney declined to press charges, even after bodycam footage emerged that captured Shoupe saying, after the suspect was killed, “I love this shit. God, I tell you what, I thrive on it.”
Ana Franklin was sworn in as sheriff of Morgan County, Ala., in 2011. Last year, she was forced to repay most of the $160,000 she had taken out of the county's fund for prisoner food. (AP/The Decatur Daily, Brennen Smith)
Louis Ackal, the sheriff of Iberia Parish, La., is currently facing a civil lawsuit stemming from the shooting death of a man who was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car. In 2016, Ackal was acquitted of separate charges of conspiracy and civil rights violations, a case in which he threatened a prosecutor by saying he’d shoot him right between his “Jewish eyes.” His defense attorney explained that he wasn’t threatening, just angry. Meanwhile, prosecutors in Milwaukee County, Wis., charged three jail employees in February with neglect and felony misconduct in a case involving a mentally ill inmate who died after being deprived of water for a week as punishment for damaging his cell. Last June, a federal jury awarded $6.7 million to a former inmate at the Milwaukee County Jail who had been raped repeatedly by a guard.
A few cases of sheriff misconduct have drawn attention from prosecutors, or at least plaintiffs’ attorneys. But most sheriffs are never called to account for their misdeeds. Individuals who have confronted sheriffs -- whether they are deputies, prosecutors or members of the public -- recall campaigns of harassment and intimidation. “In talking with people within traditionally marginalized sections of the community, it’s scary for them to speak up, because of their fear of retribution,” says Derek Dobies, the mayor of Jackson, Mich.
Before he was fired by Sheriff Robert Arnold in Rutherford County, Tenn., Virgil Gammon was third in command in the office. Gammon’s offense was blowing the whistle on Arnold’s illegal business selling electronic cigarettes to inmates. Gammon ultimately won a settlement for wrongful dismissal and Arnold was sentenced last year to four years in federal prison on fraud and extortion charges. “There were things I was doing behind the scenes for six months, before this came out,” Gammon says. “It was tough, but it was the only way to prove it was going on.”
In theory, sheriffs should be highly accountable, since they have to answer directly to voters. But in practice, while a police chief may be lucky to serve three years, it’s not unusual for a sheriff to be around for 20. There’s often meager interest in challenging a sheriff politically. In a small county, there may be only a few other people around with the minimum years of law enforcement experience required for the job. And with most counties dominated politically by one party or the other, sheriffs benefit from the limited attention voters pay to the post.
Quite often, the job is passed down from father to son. When Robert Radcliff was elected sheriff of Pickaway County, Ohio, in 2014, he succeeded his father Dwight, who had served 48 years and who, at the time, was the nation’s longest-serving sheriff. Dwight’s father Charles had served 30 years in the job before him, meaning that a member of the Radcliff family has been sheriff in Pickaway County for all but four years since 1931. That’s an unusual stretch, but unseating a sheriff is tough.
Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., perhaps the most famous sheriff of modern times, was unseated by voters in 2016, but not before winning a total of six terms marked by open feuds with other county officials, federal charges of racial profiling and settlement payments that totaled nearly $150 million. Arpaio, who was pardoned from a contempt of court sentence last year by President Trump, is now running for the U.S. Senate. David Clarke, the former Milwaukee County sheriff, also feuded constantly with local officials but served 15 years on the job before stepping down in 2017. Both men employed and benefitted from a time-honored tactic among sheriffs: claiming to be the toughest man wearing the badge. Arpaio even went so far as to trademark the phrase “America’s toughest sheriff.” “I’ve been monitoring sheriffs, off and on, for 40 years,” says Martin Yant, a private investigator in Ohio and author of a book about them. “I can’t tell you the number of sheriffs who claimed they are the toughest sheriff in America.”
Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., is perhaps the most famous sheriff of modern times. He feuded with other county officials, faced federal charges of racial profiling and was slapped with settlement payments of nearly $150 million. (AP/Ross D. Franklin)
Most people have limited sympathy for inmates or people who have been charged with crimes, no matter the nature of their complaints. Sheriffs are more likely to see public support erode if they’re perceived as being weak on crime. Following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel faced criticism for failing to apprehend the shooter despite dozens of prior complaints, as well as the failure of armed deputies to enter the school during the shooting.
The duties of sheriffs vary tremendously by state. In the Northeast, they may do nothing more than provide security in the courthouse. But in most other states, they’re responsible for highway patrols, and in many, they handle general policing and corrections. The job can be incredibly complex, involving the oversight of law enforcement across multiple jurisdictions; managing jails, which often makes them the largest provider of mental health services in the county; performing evictions; sometimes running the coroner’s office; and, if they’re near water or mountains, running search and rescue functions. (Sheriffs’ duties may vary, but the demographics of the officeholders are strikingly consistent. A survey of sheriffs by Holman and Emily Farris of Texas Christian University found that 95 percent of them are male and 99 percent are white. Franklin, who announced in February that she won’t seek reelection, is the only woman sheriff in Alabama.)
Increasingly, many sheriffs are operating under tremendous pressure, in no small part because of the quadrupling of the nation’s prison population over the past four decades. Apart from overseeing the day-to-day basics of their job, individual sheriffs often find ways to pursue innovative policy approaches to issues that come into their orbit, from methods of limiting domestic violence and drug overdoses to seeking ways to shelter the homeless. “In general, the average sheriff is a good guy,” Holman says. “My perception is that the average sheriff is incredibly concerned for their community.”
The fact that they’re elected make them not just accountable but highly attuned to the public’s wishes, adds Jonathan Thompson, CEO of the National Sheriffs’ Association. “They are out in their communities every day,” he says, “and will hear from the people, not just at the ballot box but at the grocery store, when they approve or disapprove of what they do.”
But no matter how innovative they may be or how much support they get from their counties or states, it tends to fall short of what they feel they need. Sheriffs have become entrepreneurs of a sort, seeking ways to augment their budgets. Most of that may be perfectly legitimate. But there are always temptations. “Because sheriffs control their own budgets, they can be a little more secret, or a lot more secret, than a police chief who has to answer to a city council or a city manager,” says Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who teaches at the University of South Carolina law school.
It’s never a smart career move to dress down the boss, in any field. But in some sheriff’s offices, it is a career-ender. In nearly all of them, notwithstanding Gammon in Tennessee, it’s not realistic to expect deputies to investigate their superiors. Even when they do, they may have no means of punishing them. In eight states, the only person with authority to arrest the sheriff is the coroner. “It doesn’t happen very often,” says Lisa Barker of the Indiana State Coroners Association. “There’s not a lot of training for it.”
In some states, governors have the power to remove a sheriff, but they are slow to do so, generally considering it a local matter. State legislatures have reduced some of the powers of sheriffs in recent years, placing limits on civil asset forfeiture and requiring state approval for some large contracts. But sheriffs are often able to block bills they see as a threat. They are a powerful lobbying force, well-connected in every part of a state. “When I was lobbying a reporting bill in Atlanta” -- requiring sheriffs to disclose the proceeds they’ve collected from civil forfeitures -- “every single sheriff in the state showed up in opposition,” says Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a conservative advocacy group.
At the federal level, the Trump administration seems to have little interest in providing aggressive oversight of local law enforcement. Trump not only pardoned Arpaio last summer, but he also kicked off a White House meeting with the National Sheriffs’ Association by promising them his full backing. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made similar statements. That means that for the foreseeable future the job of policing sheriffs will largely fall to state and local officials. (Something like 10 percent of sheriffs adhere to the “constitutional sheriff” movement, believing their authority can supersede even that of the federal government when it comes to enforcing laws they don’t like, such as gun control measures.)
But not every objectionable thing a sheriff does is illegal. In Jackson County, Mich., all the members of the county commission, along with the chamber of commerce and other local officials, have called on Sheriff Steve Rand to resign due to reports that he has used racist, sexist and homophobic language, as well as allegations that he discriminated against a disabled employee. Rand has apologized but refused to step down, and the governor has not removed him. “Anytime where there’s been such a breach and violation of the public trust, in most cases you would assume that person would resign or leave, to allow the community to heal on its own,” Mayor Dobies says. “It’s incredibly frustrating.”
In February, Sessions received criticism from some quarters for saying, during an address to the National Sheriffs’ Association, that “the office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.” Some heard a racial dog whistle in that phrase, but there’s no question that Sessions’ sense of history was correct. The term “sheriff” is derived from the “shire reeves” of Anglo-Saxon England. They sometimes apprehended criminals, but their main job was in-person tax collection, threatening or doling out violence until they received a satisfactory sum -- much of which they kept for themselves. That’s one reason England has eliminated all but their ceremonial duties. “They had a direct financial incentive in raising money because that’s how they were paid,” Stoughton says. “That incentive problem is why the sheriff of Nottingham was a bad guy.”
The problem of corruption has plagued sheriffs since their inception. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to raising money on the side, hosting pig roasts and golf tournaments as fundraisers for the nonprofit foundations they’ve set up. “Any outside foundations that are created -- and I think we have four that were created by sheriffs down the line -- we don’t even have the authority to audit those things,” says Joe Dill, a member of the Greenville County Council in South Carolina.
Sheriffs can award contracts to campaign contributors, with ex-sheriffs often funding lucrative retirements by winning no-bid contracts on equipment or services from their successors. But the most troubling source of money swirling around sheriffs is civil asset forfeiture. Sheriffs can seize almost any property used in the commission of a crime. They argue it’s a necessary tool in the fight against drugs. That may be so, but abuses of the process have been well-documented, from sheriffs shaking down travelers for the exact amount of cash they happen to have on their person, to ordering deputies to work traffic on just one side of the highway -- the side being used to bring back cash, not the side on which the drugs initially come in.
Civil asset forfeitures are seldom contested. Either the suspects whose property has been seized are charged with a crime, which means testimony in a property dispute can be used against them, or they may be charged with no crime, yet decide that the legal fees from fighting the seizure would cost more than the property is worth. All told, civil forfeitures have become a multibillion-dollar business for law enforcement agencies.
A number of states have sought to limit the process. Some require that property be taken only following convictions, or require sheriffs to surrender the money to the state general fund, or, at the very least, disclose their proceeds. But sheriffs have found workarounds, notably the “equitable sharing” program. That means if they can make a violation into a federal case, the U.S. Department of Justice will take a share but allow sheriffs to keep the bulk of the proceeds. In Missouri, where local law enforcement is required to send proceeds to the state, civil forfeiture cases prosecuted under state law are worth about $100,000 per year. But Missouri agencies do $9 million worth of business annually in civil forfeiture cases prosecuted under federal law -- 90 times as much. In 2015, the Obama administration curbed equitable sharing, but Sessions revived it last July.
Civil asset forfeitures have become a multibillion-dollar business for law enforcement agencies. (AP/The Commercial Appeal, Stan Carroll)
The Alabama Legislature is considering a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to hand over all civil forfeiture proceeds to the state. As is typical when such legislation is pending, sheriffs and prosecutors are pushing hard against it. Sheriffs routinely deny that they engage in “policing for profit,” but Coffee County Sheriff Dave Sutton stated differently in a February column in the Birmingham News co-authored with Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh. “Sending the proceeds of forfeiture to the state’s general fund would result in fewer busts of drug and stolen property rings,” they wrote. “What incentive would local police and sheriffs have to invest manpower, resources and time in these operations if they don’t receive proceeds to cover their costs?” It might be argued that the oath of office should be enough of an incentive, but not all sheriffs see it that way.
The Alabama Legislature also has passed a bill allowing voters in Morgan County, Ana Franklin’s territory, to give their sheriff a 35 percent raise. In exchange, the sheriff would be blocked from pocketing money from the food accounts. That question will come up before voters in November. Its passage will be a “slam dunk,” predicts Glenda Lockhart, a construction company owner in the county.
After being arrested in 2011, Lockhart and her husband sued Franklin for false arrest, ultimately reaching a settlement. Lockhart has remained a major thorn in Franklin’s side, running a blog that became a depository for information provided by anonymous deputies and other sources. “At least in our county, the next sheriff who decides to put their hand in the cookie jar will not be able to do so, at least not out of the inmate food fund,” Lockhart says. “It’s just totally wrong for them to be able to do it.”