Scotts Bluff County - Sheriff's Office

History of the Office of Sheriff

The Office of Sheriff is one of antiquity. It is the oldest law enforcement office known within the common-law system and it has always been accorded great dignity and high trust. For the most part, the Office of Sheriff evolved out of necessity. If it were not for laws which require enforcing, there would have been no necessity for the Sheriff.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, King Alfred the Great divided England into Shires (called "sories") to improve the administration of the country. These Shires were equivalent of today's local councils. A Reeve or overseer was appointed to administer the Shires on behalf of the King. The combination of the words "shire" and "reeve"(shire-reeve) eventually became known as Sheriff.

In the early days, Sheriffs had significant authority in the administration of law and order of the Shires. Their role included many functions that today would be undertaken by the armed forces and police. Permanent armies were not introduced in Europe until the 19th century. Before this,if an army was needed to defend the country from invasion, it was gathered from among the general public. Gathering an army in times of war was one responsibility of the Sheriffs of England.

Halsbury's Laws of England, one of the earliest written collections of English law, said that the Sheriff was "a conservator of the King's peace." It was the "...duty of the Sheriff to... defend this County against invasion by the King's enemies..." A permanent police service also did not exist in England until the 19th century. As a result, all law enforcement work was part of the general responsibility of the early Sheriffs. The Sheriff had power to "suppress unlawful assemblies and riots, to apprehend offenders. "Halsbury's Laws of England states that every person in a County was legally bound to "be ready at the command of the Sheriff and at the cry of the County to arrest a felon." This was called "raising the hue and cry."

During the first 600 years of the Office of Sheriff, there have been only two female Sheriffs to assume this position. In 1216, King John of Lincolnshire appointed a woman named Dame Nicolla de la Haye as Sheriff at the age of 66. Months later it is recorded that she defended Lincoln Castle from the King's enemies, such as the French invaders, with vigor and determination. Approximately 400 years later, Lady Ann Clifford was appointed Sheriff of Westmorland. Not only was she one of the wealthiest women in England, but she could fire a crossbow as well as any man. She stood up bravely to men such as James I and Cromwell. Lady Ann was the last woman Sheriff for the next 300 years.

Through the years, many Kings appointed the position of Sheriff to the highest bidder. That, with the ultimate authority from the King, forced many Sheriffs to collect monies from the shires by any manner of enforcement imaginable. Then in 1215, many nobleman, ex-Sheriffs and influential individuals drafted and adopted the Magna Charta, the famous English document in which 27 of the 63 clauses deal with the control and authority granted to the Sheriff.

In 1635, the history of the American Sheriff began after the settlements in Virginia were well enough established to allow for the replacement of the military regime by a civil government. In 1649, in Jamestown, Virginia, the Sheriff was empowered as the King's representative to keep peace.

Today, all but 12 of the more than 3,000 Sheriffs across the nation are elected and serve as public officials. They answer directly to the electorate. This in itself is a drastic change from the days when all were appointed and answerable only to those who appointed them.

In Nebraska, the Sheriff is elected to a four year term, with no limit on the number of consecutive terms that he or she may run. The Sheriff's power is granted by a number of specific state statutes and the salary of each office is established by the Board of Commissioners for that particular county. Nebraska has 93 elected Sheriffs. Some are large agencies, like Douglas county (Omaha) - Sheriff and 134 sworn officers, while others such as Arthur county (Arthur) have only a Sheriff and no deputies.

Many thanks to the Sussex County, New Jersey Sheriff's Office, the Baltimore County, Maryland Sheriff's Office and the Fulton County, Georgia Sheriff's Officefor information contained in this article.

Updated: 2010.04.30 - 11:00 MDT