BY DONNA WESTFALL
CREDIT TO NATIONAL SHERIFFS’ ASSOCIATION
Think of the term sheriff and what comes to mind: Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Where did the title come from, what makes the Office of Sheriff unique in law enforcement, why should it be called the Sheriff’s Office not a Sheriff’s Department, and why is it important to preserve its direct accountability to the citizens via the election process?
The first of two important characteristics that distinguish the Office of Sheriff from other law enforcement units is its historical roots. In England, the sheriff came into existence around the 9th century. This makes the sheriff the oldest continuing, non-military, law enforcement entity in history. In early England the land was divided into geographic areas between a few individual kings – these geographic areas were called shires. Within each shire there was an individual called a reeve, which meant guardian. This individual was originally selected by the serfs to be their informal social and governmental leader. The kings observed how influential this individual was within the serf community and soon incorporated that position into the governmental structure. The reeve soon became the Kings appointed representative to protect the King’s interest and act as mediator with people of his particular shire. Through time and usage the words shire and reeve came together to be shire-reeve, guardian of the shire and eventually the word sheriff, as we know it today.
The duties of the sheriff included keeping the peace, collecting taxes, maintaining jails, arresting fugitives, maintaining a list of wanted criminals, and serving orders and writs for the Kings Court. Most of those duties are still the foundation of the sheriff’s responsibilities in the United States. The responsibilities of the Office of Sheriff in England ebbed and flowed, depending on the mood and needs of kings and government. In 1215 the great document of freedom, the Magna Carta, was reluctantly signed by King John. This document had 63 clauses, 27 of which are related to the restrictions upon, as well as, the responsibilities of the sheriff. Through the passage of time, the English sheriff began to lose responsibility and power, and by the early 1800’s it became largely ceremonial, as it remains today.
In the United States however, a sheriff is a county official and is typically the top law enforcement officer of a county. In some areas of the country, such as in California’s San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Ventura and Del Norte counties, the sheriff’s office also has the responsibility of a coroner‘s office, and is charged with recovering deceased persons within their county and conducting autopsies.
The area they cover is all of Del Norte County (excluding Crescent City which is serviced by the Crescent City Police Department) also including the unincorporated, rural area of Klamath which is located within the Yurok Indian Reservation.
The position of Del Norte County Sheriff/Coroner goes to the voters this June. The incumbent, Dean Wilson is running against Crescent City Police Sgt. Erik Apperson, former Sheriff James Maready and Yurok Police Sgt. Elwood “Butch” Lee.
Next up: The interview with Sheriff Dean Wilson