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 of necessity. Were it not for laws which require enforcing, there would have been no necessity for the Sheriff. There would have been no need for the development of police administration, criminology, criminalists, etc. This is not the case, however. Man learned quite early that all is not orderly in the universe. All times and all places have generated those who covet the property of their neighbors and who are willing to expropriate this property by any means. As such, man’s quest for equity and order gave birth to the Office of Sheriff, the history of which begins in the Old Testament and continues through the annals of Judeo-Christian tradition. Indeed, there is no honorable law enforcement authority in Anglo-American law so ancient as that of the County Sheriff. And today, as in the past, the County Sheriff is a peace officer entrusted with the maintenance of law and order and the preservation of domestic tranquility.
Sheriffs have served and protected the English-speaking peoples for a thousand years. The Office of Sheriff and the law enforcement, judicial and correctional functions he performs are more than 1000 years old. The Office of Sheriff dates back at least to the reign of Alfred the Great of England, and some scholars even argue that the Office of Sheriff was first created during the Roman occupation of England.
Around 500 AD, Germanic tribes from Europe (called the Anglo-Saxons) began an invasion of Celtic England which eventually led over the centuries to the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon England as a unified kingdom under Alfred the Great late in the 9th Century. Alfred divided England into geographic units called “shires”, or counties.
In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons and instituted his own Norman government in England. Both under the Anglo-Saxons and under the Normans, the King of England appointed a representative called a “reeve” to act on behalf of the king in each shire or county. The “shire reeve” or King’s representative in each county became the “Sheriff” as the English language changed over the years. The shire reeve, or Sheriff, was the chief law enforcement officer of each county in the year 1000 AD. He still will have the same function in Florida in the year 2000 AD.
The concepts of “county” and “Sheriff” were essentially the same as they had been during the previous 900 years of English legal history. Because of the English heritage of the American colonies, the new United States adopted the English law and legal institutions as its owner.
Clearly, the Sheriff is the only viable officer remaining of the ancient offices, and his contemporary responsibility as conservator of the peace has been influenced greatly by modern society. As the crossbow gave way to the primitive flintlock the Sheriff is not unaccustomed to change. But now, perhaps more than ever before in history, law enforcement is faced with complex, moving, rapid changes in methodology, technology, and social attitudes. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his THE VALUE OF CONSTITUTIONS, “the Office of Sheriff is the most important of all the executive offices of the county.”
The office of Sheriff is certainly significant, and was in fact the first county office established in the United States. Some very outstanding Americans have held the office of County Sheriff, from the earliest days down to our present era. George Washington’s father was an early Sheriff in Colonial Virginia. The history of the position and functions of a Sheriff, prior to establishment of the position in America, can reportedly be traced to provisions of the Magna Carta in England, in the year 1215.
The Ohio Sheriff
The Sheriffs of America have played a significant role in the history of our Nation, and the Sheriffs of Ohio are no exception to this heritage. A brief study of the history of Ohio reveals that Ohio Sheriffs have contributed greatly to the development of the Buckeye State.
Until Ohio achieved statehood in 1803, the position of Sheriff was filled through appointments made at the pleasure of the Colonial Governor. The first Sheriff on the record in Ohio was Colonel Ebenezer Sproat. At the time he was appointed in 1788, Colonel Sproat’s jurisdiction covered all of Washington County. This enormous area of land included all of eastern Ohio from the Ohio River to Lake Erie.
After statehood became a reality, only three public offices in Ohio were filled through the electoral process system. The position of Sheriff was one of them. Through this new system, William Skinner became the first elected Sheriff in the Buckeye State. Since the early 1800’s, Ohio Sheriffs have been elected on the county level by the people they serve. By virtue of this process, this office has become the oldest law enforcement position in the United States. It is also the only remaining law enforcement office which is filled through the election method. The term of office for County Sheriffs in Ohio is four years.
In each of the 88 counties of Ohio, the Sheriff is the chief law enforcement officer. His primary duties are to provide common pleas court services and corrections on a countywide basis, and full police protection to the unincorporated areas of the county. However, he also maintains full police jurisdiction in all municipalities, townships, and villages. In an effort to become consistent on a statewide level, Ohio Sheriffs and Deputies wear a standardized uniform, and all patrol vehicles are marked in the same manner.
Within Ohio, Sheriff’s Offices have probably one of the most extensive sets of responsibilities to those they serve. By statute they must provide:
- Line Law Enforcement
- Court Security and Service of Papers
- Jail Operations
- Extradition Process
- Transportation of Prisoners