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The Sheriff: The Shire, The Reeve,The Shire-Reeve

Origin of "Sheriff"

Jangling spurs, wide brim Stetsons, blazing six guns and spirited, hard ridden horses were the hallmark of the western and eastern Sheriff, as popularized by the Hollywood film industry and the Luke Short novels. However, this oldest of all law enforcement agencies had its beginnings in a past so distant that historical dispute clouds its first formal establishment.

From Shire-Reeve to Sheriff

Some accounts place it in the days of the ancient Roman pro-consul. Most say the office was created in ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England, where the word "sheriff" was probably derived. Each Shire, or land district, was headed by an official known as a Reeve. The title Shire-Reeve gradually evolved to the single designation of Sheriff.

The Sheriff's Office Arrives in America

The office of Sheriff arrived on the American shores with English colonization of Virginia and the emergence of counties in the 1630s. As the frontier moved westward, so did the Sheriff.  He became an integral part of the late nineteenth-century American history.

The role of the Sheriff changed with the times. States and their counties adjusted their local law enforcement agencies to the specific demands and the needs mandated by social, economic and technological changes.

Today's Sheriff

In smaller, mainly rural, communities across the nation, today's Sheriff still retains and executes many of the original duties of the office. In urban metropolitan areas like Baltimore County, a number of these functions have changed drastically and are normally assigned to police departments.

The Sheriff's star, the symbol of his basic, undiminished stature, remains.

All but 12 of the more than 3,000 Sheriffs across the nation are elected and answer directly to the electorate. This is a drastic change from the days when all were appointed and answered exclusively to those who appointed them. In Maryland, every county and Baltimore City has an elected Sheriff.

The Sheriff in Baltimore County

The Sheriff is the Chief Constitutional Law Enforcement Officer. He is elected to a four year term with no limit on the number of consecutive terms for which he may run. His power and salary – which cannot be altered during his term of office – are determined by the State Legislature. All members of his staff are employed under conditions of the merit system of the County.

The Sheriff's Staff

The staff currently consists of an undersheriff, captain, two lieutenants, six sergeants and 60 deputies. All have delegated authority to carry out powers of the Sheriff. Their duties are supported by a clerical staff which includes an administrative assistant and seven criminal records clerks. The staff expands as needs are justified and funds are allocated.

To qualify for positions, deputies are required to complete an accredited police training course supervised by the Maryland Police Training Commission. Continued training is required annually.

Sheriff's Office Duties

Court and Building Security

The major responsibility assigned to Deputy Sheriffs is the provision of security for judges, juries and witnesses during trial sessions of both the Circuit and Juvenile Courts. The responsibility of providing security for the physical features of the County Courts Building is provided by separate uniformed Guard Force, also under the supervision of the Sheriff.

Service of Court Papers

The Sheriff's Office is responsible for the processing and serving of all legal papers issued by the Circuit Court of Baltimore County or by any official local or state agency in the County. In a single year, about 95,000 documents – including summonses, subpoenas, warrants, writs and court orders – are served, resulting in collection of approximately $221,000 in fees.

Transportation and Custody of Prisoners

The custody and security of prisoners, from the time of their arrest to the time of release or relocation following sentencing, is another responsibility of the Sheriff's Office.

The responsibility for transportation of prisoners includes:

  • Transportation from places of confinement to courts for trial
  • Transportation after conviction and sentencing to the Maryland Reception and Diagnostic Center in Baltimore City where places of confinement are selected or decided
  • Trips to state institutions and funerals of family members

Judicial Sales

As an arm of the Court, the Sheriff must also carry out judgments of the Judiciary against those erring citizens who fail to pay debts the Court determines they owe. Admittedly a sometimes distasteful but necessary task, the Sheriff may also – at the direction of the Court – be required to seize personal property and sell it at auction to satisfy claims of a creditor.

Public Gatherings

The Sheriff may also assign his deputies to assist at public gatherings. They can be easily recognized by their distinctive tan and brown uniforms, wide brim Stetson hats and seven-point star badges.

Revised October 11, 2017         


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