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History of the Sheriff's Office

The Difference Between the Police and the Sheriff

On many occasions we are asked "What is the difference between the Sheriff's Office and the Police Department?" To most people, the distinction is unclear at best, and at worst the citizens have no knowledge of the office. There are many differences as well as similarities. In the state of Maryland there is an Office of the Sheriff for each county and one for Baltimore City. In many counties, the Sheriff's Office is the provider of primary law enforcement duties. In jurisdictions which have police departments, the Office of Sheriff provides services to the Courts.


Since the year 992 AD, Sheriffs have been enforcing laws, protecting citizens and enforcing the will of King and Court. It is here the powers of the Sheriff originated in English Common Law which has been absorbed into American Common Law and subsequently into the Constitution of the state of Maryland. In 1941, Walter H. Anderson, a prominent attorney of the Idaho, California and Tennessee state Bars and Supreme Court of the United States Bar, wrote "A Treatise on the Law of Sheriffs" which has become the foremost legal authority on the subject of Sheriffs.

Anderson states that "the Sheriff's primary obligation is to represent the sovereignty, authority, and interests of the state in his respective jurisdiction", whereas the Police Department represents the interests of the local jurisdiction. Originally the Sheriff was the King's man, representing the interests and authority of the King in his Shire, often controlled by noblemen not always sympathetic or loyal to the King. In preserving the rights of the government, he (the Sheriff) represents the sovereignty of the state (Maryland) and has no superior in his county.


The modern Office of Sheriff carries with it all of the common law powers, duties and responsibilities to preserve the peace, enforce the laws and arrest and commit to jail felons and other infractors of the law. The powers and duties of the Sheriff are analogous to those imposed upon police departments. The Sheriff is the principle conservator of the peace within the county.

Revised October 27, 2016         


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