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US sheriffs surveyed on immigration, race, policing, political power

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.

Prisoners from a chain gang work in an unidentified field in 1903.
Prisoners from a chain gang work in an unidentified field in 1903.

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. 

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