We’ll miss sheriffs when they’re gone
Sheriffs, please know, are different from the tawdry mix of ambition and vanity that makes up local officialdom.
Sheriffs are precursors of our constitutional republic and its attendant democracy. They arose in first-century Anglo-Saxon England or even with the Norse, the natural, chosen leaders of their communities (shires), their title dating back to Alfred the Great.
Sheriffs in this Alfredian mold spoke truth to power. They kept local order, but more important to this discussion they represented to the king the legitimate interests and concerns of common folk — primarily regarding the protection of property and individual liberty, both unique to Western civilization.
The character built into the office was wisely carried over to the legal codes of colonial American government and eventually to our constitutional republic.
Today, not so much. Sheriffs in our metropolitan counties appear most concerned with protecting a system of double-dip pensioning. A friend, retired from law enforcement here, remembers observing one of the state’s first Special Weapons and Tactics teams go through its drills.
His thought at the time was that he might have seen the last of the traditional Indiana sheriffs. Future deputies, he realized, would be indistinguishable from policemen, restaurant inspectors, meter readers and other hired muscle for the city, county and state.
The sheriff still stands strong in rural America. A recent quote from a Colorado sheriff protesting his state’s new gun laws is representative: “In my oath it says I’ll uphold the U.S. Constitution and the constitution of the state of Colorado. It doesn’t say I have to uphold every law passed by the Legislature.”
Clearly, the sheriff can be a bane to central authority — again, it is historically built into the job. County councils and managers, therefore, are slowly tightening a fiscal noose around the office, reducing it to something resembling an armed postmaster. And it is no accident that legislatures long ago forced sheriffs into term limits.