When your spouse or significant other has beaten you and your child and is threatening to kill you all, you don’t really care what kind of law enforcement officer responds, as long as he or she gets there fast. When your loved one is lying on the floor blue and not breathing, you don’t care much what is the specific title of the law enforcement officer that saves your loved one’s life with Narcan. Or, when you hear someone breaking into your house at 2:00 a.m. and call 911, you probably don’t care who employs the responding officer.
The public rightfully relies on law enforcement to assist in keeping them safe and apprehending law-breakers, without necessarily giving thought to exactly what kind of officer is responding to their particular issue. However, when it comes to who employs them and who their primary loyalty is to, not all law enforcement officers are the same.
Who Does the Sheriff Work For?
A Virginia Sheriff is one of five “constitutional officers” in the Commonwealth. This means that under the Constitution of Virginia, voters elect the Sheriff. As an elected official, a Sheriff answers to the citizenry, and cannot be controlled by a government official. A Sheriff is one of the few law enforcement officers who are responsible to all the people of their community, not just to a select few.
This is in contrast to a Chief of Police, who is typically hired or appointed by a governmental body and ultimately answers to his or her government employers. This could be a mayor, city manager, town council, or other governing body. Thus, a Chief of Police is a government employee, whereas a Sheriff works for the people.
The Sheriff is the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the county he or she serves.
History of the Sheriff
The office of Sheriff dates back to England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. As the British Encyclopedia Britannica notes:
In England the office of sheriff existed before the Norman Conquest (1066). The separation of the ecclesiastical from the secular courts under William I the Conqueror left