What Does a Sheriff ACTUALLY Do?

There's trouble brewing in the saloon.

Suddenly, two men burst out of its front doors, swaggering into the middle of the street.

They count about thirty paces distance between each other and stop- it's gonna be a duel.

Fingers twitch over holstered revolvers, as the high noon sun beats down mercilessly on

the two gunslingers.

Then there's a shout, and bystanders point to three horses riding up in a cloud of dust.

Leading the trio is a man with a tell-tale silver badge on his chest, a rifle slung across

his arms, and an ivory handled revolver at his hip- this here's the Sheriff, and there'll

be no gunslinging in his town today.

Sheriffs are about as iconic a part of the American wild west as cowboys, Indians, and

duels at high noon.

Back before we had an established police force, the Sheriff was the lonely, long arm of the

law, deputizing other civilians when the need arose in order to face down criminal threats

he couldn't handle by himself.

Yet in today's world of professional law enforcement, Sheriffs still play a major role within the

justice system- but what is a Sheriff and what do they do exactly?

Back in the day Sheriffs were typically appointed by local governments and acted as the sole

adjudicator of the law, at least outside of the courtroom.

They were responsible for investigating crimes, enforcing the law, and dealing with any would-be


In the less-civilized lands west of the Mississippi, Sheriffs were typically military veterans,

or skilled gunslingers with a reputation for being honorable and respectable men.

Sheriffs often worked alone or with a single partner in the far-flung towns and settlements

of the old west, and thus had to be self-reliant and tough enough to deal with any threat that

came their way.

Being a crack shot was just as important as knowing how to ride a horse, survive in the

wild, and having a good moral compass and impeccable integrity.

For times when the criminal threat was too great for the Sheriff alone, he was empowered

to deputize civilians, temporarily granting them the same law enforcement powers that

the Sheriff alone enjoyed.

This would even extend to granting immunity from the consequences of using deadly force

against criminals who resisted arrest, though was not a blank check for acting with reckless


Deputies too had to be trustworthy and upstanding individuals, and as the wild west was gradually

civilized, Sheriffs began to take on permanent deputies who worked as full-time law enforcement.

Over the years though the role of the Sheriff gradually shifted as the wild west and the

United States as a whole became more civilized.

As towns grew and the world shifted from punishing crime to actively preventing it through an

active police force, police departments took over the job of the town Sheriff, and armed

police officers working beats and making their presence known in the community replaced the

town Sheriff and his deputies, who mostly remained in their office until trouble arose.

The shift in policing philosophies saw the Sheriff take on more of an administrative

role, and soon the role of Sheriff took on two different dimensions.

The first would be line and file Sheriffs, who acted much in the same way as police officers

but with slightly different duties, and the second would be that of Sheriff for a local

municipality, or today, entire counties.

Line and file Sheriffs are very similar to regular police officers.

Much like a police officer, a Sheriff has the same rights to carry out arrests, and

can be tasked with law enforcement duties- especially in communities too small for a

regular police department.

Sheriffs can thus respond to emergency calls, give out traffic tickets, arrest suspects,

and conduct patrols.

Unlike police officers though, Sheriffs in communities too small for a police department

also handle many of the same functions of a police investigator, and can interview witnesses

to crimes and carry out full-scale investigations- though if the crime is serious enough an outside

consultant, such as a full-time investigator, is typically requested.

Sheriffs much like police officers though have the same duties after a crime is committed,

and they prepare written reports of criminal incidents or medical emergencies and then

go to court in order to testify on their written reports.

Unlike regular police though, Sheriffs can actually work for either local government,

or a federal government agency, and their daily duties can vary depending on which entity

they actually work for.

Some Sheriff's departments even carry out full-scale investigations ranging from drug

trafficking, human trafficking, and even into corruption in other police departments.

In places with a large local police presence, Sheriffs typically restrict themselves to

maintaining security at local courts and jails.

Sheriffs also typically take the lead in processing civil cases, and will very often be the office

charged with enforcing court orders such as evictions, lawsuits, or even divorces.

They can be tasked with removing individuals from a property after an eviction notice has

been served, or with seizing physical assets or property in order to enforce a bank levy

or a court judgment such as a lawsuit.

As law enforcement professionals though, a Sheriff's duties are ultimately whatever their

local community needs from them.

The office of Sheriff however is a different matter altogether, and this is an elected

official who is the top law enforcement official in a county.

They are responsible for managing the day to day activities of law enforcement and even

with overseeing the execution and investigations of criminal cases.

Some of history's most famous Sheriffs include Sheriff Pat Garrett, who was responsible for

killing famous outlaw, Billy the Kid.

Supposedly Garrett and Billy were close friends who often gambled together, but when Garret

was elected Sheriff that all changed and he vowed to bring in Billy to face justice.

After a shootout with Billy the Kid and his gang, and after killing two gang members,

Sheriff Garrett brought Billy in to face justice.

Billy was sentenced to hang, but managed to escape after killing two guards.

Garret vowed revenge for the death of the lawmen, and after tracking Billy down once

more, he waited under the cover of darkness for him to come home and then put a bullet

straight into the heart of Billy the Kid.

Unfortunately the cold-blooded killing hurt Sheriff Garret's reputation and he lost his

bid for reelection.

Sheriff Harry Wheeler, also from the last days of the wild west, had a fearsome reputation

as a lawman and gunslinger both.

He is remembered best for having taken part in the last great gunfights of the wild west

era, or perhaps for illegally deporting 1300 mine workers in Arizona.

He got his start in 1904 as a ranger, when he responded to a robbery in a local saloon-

there Wheeler ran into the escaping crook and the two faced each other down as Wheeler

demanded he turn himself in.

The thief reached for his weapon but Wheeler was faster.

His exploits would see him rise through the ranks of law enforcement, until finally being

elected as Cochise County Sheriff.

In 1917 he took part in what is considered one of the last shootouts of the Old West,

when he and his deputy were ambushed by smugglers they were tracking.

All night long the two groups exchanged gunfire, but in the dark of night none could find their

mark- save for Wheeler.

He would shoot one of the smugglers, though if he survived or not would never be discovered,

because the other men would lay down covering fire and eventually retreat as the night turned

into dawn.

Sheriff John Hicks Adams would go on to write his own name in the history books soon after

the end of the American Civil War.

Originally migrating to California during the gold rush, Adams was elected sheriff when

the previous sheriff died and someone was needed to finish his term.

Soon after taking the office, Adams learned of a group of ex-Confederate sore losers who

now paraded around as a criminal gang calling themselves Captain Ingram's Partisan Rangers.

Adams formed a posse and tracked the gang down to a small cabin, which he and his men


After several hours of gunfighting, the gang surrendered- but only after losing several

members to the Sheriff and his men.

This feat ensured Adam's reelection as Sheriff, and soon he was up against another group of

ex-Confederate outlaws.

This gang though, calling themselves the Mason-Henry Gang, had a much more fearsome and bloodthirsty

reputation, and earned the name in the media “The Copperhead Murderers” for their habit

of killing people in the course of their robberies- specially if they were ex-Union supporters.

Adams pursued the gang relentlessly, but they always managed to stay one step ahead of the

Sheriff- eventually though he managed to chase them out of southern California altogether

and the gang would go on to meet their demise at the hands of law enforcement up north.

Sheriffs today may not be the gunslingers of old, but their job is as vital as it has

ever been- specially in communities that are too small and too remote for a regular police


While in larger communities they typically stick to securing courthouses and serving

warrants, that doesn't mean that you should feel free to pass one by with the pedal to

the metal on the freeway, because Sheriffs retain the right to carry out all the same

law enforcement duties as a regular police officer!

Think you got what it would have taken to be an old West sheriff?

Let us know in the comments!

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