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What is a Sheriff?

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 the sheriff supreme in the county and as president of its court. He convened and led military forces of the [area], executed all writs, and, for the first century after the Conquest, judged both criminal and civil cases.

Virginia has the distinction of being the site of the first Sheriff appointed in America, in 1634 in Northampton. Less than 20 years later, American ideals prevailed and the first Sheriff was elected in America, also in Northampton.

Authority and Responsibility of the Sheriff

The office of Sheriff carries tremendous responsibility. As an elected official, the Sheriff is directly accountable to the community he serves. Legally, it is presumed that the election of a particular candidate for Sheriff over another means that the voters have chosen the winning candidate’s policies and priorities over the other’s. Therefore, the Sheriff owes a duty to the voters and to the public at large to see that his policies are implemented.

In Culpeper County, the Sheriff’s legal duties include serving civil process documents, court security, enforcement of the laws, and operating the local jail. The details of how that happens are up to the Sheriff. However, the Sheriff’s policies and priorities are not carried out by the Sheriff acting alone. Rather, the law allows the Sheriff to delegate some of his authority to sworn deputies. In essence, the Sheriff is transferring part of his constitutional powers to his deputies.

Because of this tremendous responsibility, the law allows a Sheriff a great deal of discretion in who he chooses as deputies to carry out those duties. The deputy is an extension of the Sheriff, acting on the Sheriff’s behalf to serve the community. The Sheriff must have confidence that the policies and priorities he promised to the electorate, that the voters approved when they elected him, are being implemented. The Sheriff is permitted by law to hire or retain only those deputies that he believes will carry out the Sheriff’s policies and priorities as promised to the electorate.

Relationship With Other Departments

In Culpeper County, the Board of Supervisors approves the budget of the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff works closely and cooperatively with the Board of Supervisors, County Administrator, and other agencies and departments to determine how the Sheriff’s policies and priorities should be funded, and how much money is needed. The Board of Supervisors then approves the Sheriff’s budget as requested, or as modified, taking into account the needs of the County as a whole.

Other than authorizing the Sheriff’s budget and allocating funds, the Board of Supervisors plays no role in the operations of the Sheriff’s Office or in any of the decisions the Sheriff makes.

As the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Culpeper County, the Sheriff has jurisdiction over the entire county, including the town. However, typically the Culpeper Police Department handles law enforcement within the town limits. The Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department work closely together on many matters.

Ultimately, the Sheriff is the only law enforcement officer in the County that answers directly to the citizenry. He thus works for all of us in making Culpeper County a safer, more secure community where we can live, work, and play.

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