Commentary: Why Elect a Sheriff?

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, August 12, 2005

Why do we elect sheriffs? Why don't county supervisors appoint them like city councils appoint police chiefs?

The answer lies in tradition and the law. An elected county sheriff was provided for in California's original constitution.

In 1849, that made sense. In sparsely populated rural counties of that era, often the sheriff represented all the law enforcement there was. It was important that the man holding that position - and back then, it was always a man - enjoy the trust and support of the local population.

But it's 2005. The skills it takes to get elected today are not the same skills it takes to run a complicated modern law enforcement bureaucracy, to fashion a cost effective budget, address domestic violence or gang warfare. Also, an elected sheriff creates a disconnect between authority and responsibility. Supervisors are responsible for all the needs of the county - welfare, public health, parks, roads and law enforcement - and they have to balance the county's budget while an independently elected sheriff runs its biggest department. Supervisors, each of whom represent just a portion of the county, have a hard time exercising necessary budgetary control over a sheriff who's elected countywide.

Elected sheriffs are a quaint relic of the past, a relic it may be time to discard.


Ginger Rutland writes for the Sacramento Bee Opinion pages.