Over the last decade, debates about police violence, mass incarceration and other criminal justice issues have generally focused on police chiefs and prosecutors. But sheriffs demand equal attention. In an increasingly partisan America, they lobby state legislatures and Congress. They run jails and carry out evictions. They decide how aggressively to investigate and arrest people on matters ranging from guns to elections to immigration. And they may shape how new abortion laws play out at the local level.
Most sheriffs are elected, and hundreds are on the ballot this November. Progressives are promoting candidates who promise to make jails safer and leave immigration enforcement to the federal government. Conservatives increasingly see sheriffs as standard-bearers in fights over guns, immigration and voting, and it’s not unusual to see them on Fox News or standing on a rally stage next to former President Donald Trump.
To make sense of this blend of policing and politics, The Marshall Project — a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system — conducted an exclusive, wide-ranging survey with two of America’s leading scholarly experts on sheriffs, Emily Farris of Texas Christian University and Mirya Holman of Tulane University. The survey produced answers from more than 500 sheriffs — roughly 1 in 6 nationwide. (Read about the methodology below.)
Among the takeaways, the survey found that sheriffs — the vast majority of whom are white and male, according to a previous study — are also far more conservative 1 than Americans as a whole, and largely approve of Trump’s performance as president.
Other findings include:
- Many subscribe to a notion popular on the right that, in their counties, their power supersedes that of the governor or the president.
- Most believe mass protests like those against the 2020 police murder of George Floyd are motivated by bias against law enforcement.
- They are frequently open to some changes championed by the criminal justice reform movement, including a federal government system to track officers accused of misconduct and police trainings in nonviolent alternatives to deadly force.
The Marshall Project gave respondents the opportunity to respond without revealing their name publicly but also gave them the option to talk in follow-up interviews. A reporter spoke to 17 sheriffs about their responses. Each sheriff spoke about the unique nature of their power as elected law enforcement officials. As Sheriff Tim Leslie of Dakota County, Minnesota (population 442,000), put it: “Everyone’s your boss; no one’s your boss.”
How we got sheriffs
The United States inherited the office of sheriff from England, where kings appointed them to enforce orders and collect taxes. In the 1600s, North American colonists who wanted to undermine the crown’s power began electing their own sheriffs. Many states eventually wrote the position into their constitutions.
On the Western frontier, a sheriff might be the first elected official in a newly settled area and would enlist citizen “posses” to help him keep the peace internally — and attack outsiders. “Sheriffs often served as the first or only law enforcement representatives as settlers engaged in the genocide of Native Americans and Mexican citizens,” Farris and Holman write in a forthcoming book about sheriffs based on surveys and a decade of research.
In the South, sheriffs’ authority was intimately connected to slavery. If you escaped the plantation, the sheriff might be the one chasing you. After the Civil War, the Jim Crow-era laws known as “Black codes” allowed sheriffs to arrest Black men and women for minor violations like loitering and “rambling without a job” and hire them out to private companies. This so-called “convict leasing” was essentially a continuation of slavery.
Historians have found that sheriffs frequently intimidated Black voters, and facilitated lynchings, often by allowing mobs to abduct people from their jails. The sheriff was among the most visible public opponents of civil rights advances — “hired by the Republic to keep the Republic [W]hite,” as James Baldwin put it in his 1987 essay “To Crush a Serpent.” Progressive activists see echoes of that history in the fact that, as of 2020, 90% of sheriffs were still white men, according to the progressive Reflective Democracy Campaign.
Today, some county sheriffs continue to extract labor from the people they detain. A few, like Sheriff Wayne Ivey of Brevard County, Florida, still operate chain gangs. But their power stems more broadly from their role as the administrator of the county jail, which can account for a significant portion of a county’s budget.
Most Americans fund their sheriffs through taxes, but sheriffs also support themselves through fines and fees. This has frequently led to accusations that they are financially motivated to issue traffic tickets or overcharge people in their jails for food, phone calls and other necessities.
Last year, a pair of progressive organizations found that conflicts of interest are common: Sheriffs can receive campaign contributions from the very companies that contract with them for services like jail medical care and detainee transportation. Farris and Holman argue elections are often uncompetitive because sheriffs have an ability to “manipulate” the pool of candidates and “keep it shallow,” citing examples in which sheriffs fired deputies who announced campaigns against them. While police chiefs generally serve for up to six years, political scientist Michael Zoorob found recently that the average sheriff serves for roughly 11 years, and often runs uncontested.
What sheriffs do
Once someone is elected sheriff, it can be a steep learning curve. “All you need, in Minnesota and most states, is 50 bucks and a peace officer license” to run for the office, Leslie noted. “It’s your electability.” Farris and Holman found that only 18 states require sheriffs to have particular qualifications or experience — sometimes set by sheriffs themselves, through their own associations. Most of the survey respondents have gone to college, but are less likely to have a master’s degree 2 than police chiefs.
The job can vary widely. In Cook County (population 5.17 million), which encompasses Chicago, Sheriff Tom Dart oversees as many as 9,000 detainees a day at a jail he has previously called the country’s “largest de facto facility for mental illnesses.”
By contrast, Sheriff Sharon Wehrly of Nye County, Nevada (population. 53,500), oversees around 190 detainees, but her deputies police more than 18,000 square miles. She said it takes her up to five hours to drive across her jurisdiction.
Farris and Holman have found sheriffs are more likely to patrol rural areas and tend to have more duties in the West and South than the Northeast and Midwest. Many sheriffs’ offices are tiny, employing fewer than 25 sworn officers, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most sheriffs run jails and oversee deputies on patrol, but Farris and Holman have documented a surprising range of other roles, from running summer camps to rescuing injured birds to hunting cougars.
The survey respondents who agreed to be interviewed did recognize their power and longevity, but argued that both stemmed from their deep relationships with their communities. “Sheriffs have to feel the heartbeat of the citizens that voted them in there,” said James Hammond, who retired as sheriff of Hamilton County, Tennessee (population 369,100), earlier this year. “For the most part, they grow up around the people that elect them.” Whereas many police chiefs hop from city to city, more than half of sheriffs in the survey went to high school in the counties they now serve.
“People will call me if it’s a neighbor dispute, a kid with a behavior problem, [or] a family member with an addiction problem,” said Sheriff Chuck Jenkins of Frederick County, Maryland (population 279,800). Why do they come to him? “I think it goes back to a little bit of romanticism with the role of the sheriff,” Jenkins said, noting that he still watches “The Andy Griffith Show,” the 1960s sitcom about the kindly sheriff of fictional Mayberry, North Carolina, who helps resolve local quarrels.
Sheriffs on immigration
But does everyone feel they can call Jenkins? He champions aggressive immigration enforcement on Fox News. His office is one of more than 140 agencies nationwide in the 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to aid the federal government’s efforts to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.
Last year, Jenkins settled a lawsuit with a Latina motorist who believed she’d been racially profiled and wrongfully detained by his deputies. “You have my sincere apology for the events that occurred during that traffic stop and any fear that they may have caused you,” Jenkins wrote to the woman in an official letter, promising better training for deputies.
In The Marshall Project’s survey, most sheriffs proved hawkish on immigration. They want the federal government to spend more on border security.
Policy views often stem from personal opinions. Farris and Holman included questions to measure resentment of immigrants and other groups, based on a scale developed by scholars at the nonpartisan American National Election Studies. The survey found as many as 1 in 4 sheriffs believed that some immigrants — even those with legal status — take more from the United States than they bring to it.
These opinions help explain why many sheriffs have played such an enthusiastic role in immigration enforcement. Farris and Holman have found that when sheriffs hold negative views of immigrants, they are more likely to advise deputies to check the immigration status of crime victims, witnesses, traffic violators or people arrested for non-violent crimes.
These findings reflect a broader reality about the power of sheriffs: How they see the world shapes their policy preferences. As Farris and Holman put it, “If the sheriff does not like your group, he is structuring hiring, training and policy in his office to punish you.”
Sheriffs on policing
From Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 to Minneapolis in 2020, racial justice protests have tended to coalesce around killings of Black people by police officers, rather than sheriff’s deputies. But sometimes a death in a county jail — where the sheriff is the leader to hold accountable — will spark local protests, and even motivate people to challenge the sheriff in their next election.
In The Marshall Project survey, sheriffs mostly took a skeptical line towards these protests, seeing them as motivated in part by a “longstanding bias” against law enforcement.
These views appear to stem from a fundamental disagreement with protesters about the basis for the protests: Four out of five sheriffs thought deaths of Black people during encounters with police were “isolated incidents” rather than “signs of a broader problem.”
And zooming out, most sheriffs think racial inequality is a problem that’s been solved. Seventy eight percent agreed more with the idea that “our country has made the changes needed to give [B]lacks equal rights with [W]hites,” while the rest thought the country needed to continue making changes. (Most Americans, according to the Pew Research Center, see things the opposite way 3.)
As with immigration, opinions shape policy; if you don’t see a systemic problem, you probably won’t favor a systemic solution. Sheriffs in the survey mostly opposed civilian oversight of their offices or making it a crime to use a chokehold like the one Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin used to murder George Floyd.
At the same time, they are not uniformly opposed to certain changes. Training in non-violent tactics fared well, as did the idea of a federal database to track officers accused of misconduct.
Some of these views may reflect their managerial role: a database might help them decide who to hire, and more training may decrease the risk of civilian deaths under their watch, along with the lawsuits that can follow.
Sheriff Frank Gomez of rural Grant County, New Mexico (population 27,900), said training his staff to de-escalate potentially violent situations is especially helpful given how often his half-dozen deputies are alone in their 4,000-square-mile jurisdiction. “Backup’s not coming for 10 or 15 minutes — the last thing you want to do is think that that badge is bigger than your head.”
There’s also a financial incentive: More tools and forms of training can mean a bigger budget. “These reforms have been absorbed into their thinking because that means money,” said Jessica Pishko, a former researcher at the University of South Carolina Law School and author of “The Highest Law in the Land,” a forthcoming book on sheriffs.
The sheriff as political celebrity
In 2011, then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, made national headlines for questioning the veracity of then-president Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Then-Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke became a fixture on Fox News, talking about everything from crime rates to Beyoncé’s outfits. Both became allies of Donald Trump, who regularly hosted sheriffs at the White House and paved a road from the local to national spotlight.
Sheriffs have long been able to exert a kind of soft power by sharing views on local radio shows and their own Facebook pages. Some may do this to get on the national media radar. Others say they want to explain how national issues are playing out locally, which can reduce the hostility stirred up by more famous politicians. “I’m all for border security,” said Sheriff Greg Graver of Jones County, Iowa (population 20,800). “But also, we’ve got Mexican restaurants: Don’t disrespect these people because you’re hearing on the news that they’re rapists and murderers.”
Still others said they use public statements to test how their communities really feel about new issues. “It’s important for us to dip our toe in the water every once in a while,” said Sheriff Mike Murphy of Livingston County, Michigan (population 195,000). “Trust me, I’ve had my share of backlash from things that I’ve said or done, and…I look at that and go, ‘OK, well maybe that’s not really what the community is looking for.’” (Murphy faced criticism last year when his office investigated a woman whose tweets attacked another woman for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. Prosecutors never filed charges.)
Since the Marshall Project survey was conducted in late 2021, sheriffs have been weighing in on newer issues. Some have earned praise from progressives for saying they will not enforce new abortion bans. Others on the right are pledging to investigate elections, following Donald Trump’s widely-debunked claims of fraud.
At the same time, more sheriffs than ever before appear to be seeking higher office. Former sheriff Mike Parson is the governor of Missouri, while others have run to represent parts of Arizona, California, Mississippi and Texas in Congress. It may only be a matter of time before a sheriff runs for president.
This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer for The Marshall Project. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @MauriceChammah.
Marshall Project reporter Maurice Chammah obtained a directory from the National Sheriffs’ Association with the email addresses of 1,770 members. Political scientists Mirya Holman and Emily Farris used state sheriff association directories and internet searches to augment the directory with new records and more accurate information, resulting in 3,005 email addresses in total. (Most estimates of sheriffs place the total number around 3,000, in line with the approximately 3,200 counties in the U.S.)
Holman and Farris emailed these sheriffs in November 2021, with four follow-up email reminders over three weeks, and used internet searches to identify alternative contact information in cases where emails bounced back as undeliverable. 832 sheriffs offices opened the link to the survey, 576 answered at least one question on the survey and 439 saw every question in the survey, according to the platform used to conduct the research.
The researchers calculated percentages based on the number of sheriffs who clicked at least one option for a given question. These percentages do not account for sheriffs who declined to answer, or, in cases with multiple options, did not select any of the given options. Questions have a different number of respondents who selected at least one option, varying from 303 to 534, with a median of 397 respondents.
Following institutional review board approval at Texas Christian University and Tulane University, sheriffs were promised anonymity but given the option of agreeing to a follow-up interview, and in those cases the sheriffs allowed their responses to the survey to be on-the-record.
The responding sheriffs hail from places that broadly reflect the demographics of the average American county. The average population of counties represented by the survey is 57,261, compared with 61,474 nationally, according to the U.S. Census. The average percentage of each racial group, for survey counties, was 82% white, 8% Latino and 7% Black, while for U.S. counties overall they are 79% white, 8% Latino and 9% Black. According to 464 responding sheriffs, their average age is 54.8 years old. (The U.S. Census considers Latino or Hispanic “ethnicity” separate from race; “Latino” here refers to people of any race with Latino or Hispanic ethnicity.)
To compare the political views of responding sheriffs and the counties they serve to the U.S. as a whole, Farris and Holman used data from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab. In the counties represented by those sheriffs, 38% of voters, on average, voted for Joe Biden for president in 2020, compared with 36% in U.S. counties overall, according to the MIT Election Archive.
County populations mentioned in the story were taken from the U.S. Census Population Estimates, July, 1 2021.
Due to number rounding, some percentages in charts do not add up to precisely 100%.