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Do Elected Sheriffs Have Outsized Power In The U.S.?


You've probably been hearing people talk about reforming or even defunding the police. And that means different things to different people, but at the core of it is the idea to bring more accountability to policing or to move those functions to others who might be better suited to them. And along those lines, there's new scrutiny being directed at a group of law enforcement officers who haven't gotten as much attention. And we're talking here about elected sheriffs.

A new report from the Reflective Democracy Campaign - that's a research organization - analyzed data on elected sheriffs around the country. And a report concluded that they have, quote, "unparalleled autonomy and tremendous power," unquote, in the communities they police with very little accountability. Their findings are published in a new report called Confronting The Demographics Of Power: America's Sheriffs.

Brenda Choresi Carter is the director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign, and she's with us now to tell us more about this report. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

BRENDA CHORESI CARTER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I'm also joined by Koran Saines, who is vice chair of the board of supervisors in Loudon County, Va., where they've actually recently been debating this issue.

Koran Saines, thank you so much for joining us as well.

KORAN SAINES: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, Brenda Choresi Carter, I'm going to start with you. I'm not sure that everybody knows the difference between a sheriff's department and a police department, so as briefly as you can, could you just tell us, what's the difference?

CARTER: Well, sheriffs are unique in that they are, as you noted, elected across most states in the United States, so 46 states elect their sheriffs. They're county-level offices, so they are elected in, you know, thousands of counties across the country. And they have a different kind of position in elected office and in the criminal legal system than police do. They enjoy really unparalleled autonomy and really a remarkable lack of accountability.

That's pretty different even from police, where rightly, there's a real debate about the level of accountability that police face. But sheriffs are a really unique position within both elected office and the criminal legal system. And in the course of doing our research, we concluded that this is a singularly troubling and problematic position of authority in the United States.

MARTIN: I could see where some people might argue that an elected official is more accountable to the voters and to the public than an appointed official might be. So why do you say that?

CARTER: Yeah, it's a good question. Most sheriffs' positions are created in state constitutions, and they operate incredibly independently. So whereas a police chief, for instance, operates within a system of city government and is answerable to a mayor and the city council, sheriffs for the most part really answer to no one except the voters.

But what we also found in our research is that 60% of sheriffs run unopposed when they run for elections. So this is not a sort of robust area of democracy. So there really isn't any meaningful structure in most cases beyond these occasional elections where they may or may not face opposition to scrutinize the behavior of sheriffs and their offices.

MARTIN: And one more point from the report - the report says that about 90% of the nation's sheriffs are white men even though they are 30% of the population. And that's an even more - how can I say this? - skewed demographic than exists in most police departments these days. Is that correct? How did that come about?

CARTER: That's right. And for us, that's a real red flag. When we see something like we see with sheriff's offices, which is tremendous power combined with an extreme lack of accountability, that raises real questions about who that position serves, whether it's even a position that makes sense at all and what it means for democracy and sort of the functioning of society that those combination of factors are all concentrated in one position.

MARTIN: So let's go to Koran Saines. Mr. Supervisor, Loudon County, which - where you grew up, has a sheriff's department but no police department. And it's my understanding that some of the supervisors and some of the citizens have been discussing the idea of - is it replacing or supplementing the sheriff's department with a police department? Tell me more about that. How did this idea come about?

SAINES: Well, yes, you're absolutely correct. We do not have a police department. We have a sheriff's department. So that - you know, we're not looking to dismantle our sheriff's department. What we're looking to do is add in a police department where we have a police chief, where that police chief and his deputies would report to the county administrator.

And then the sheriff's department would still be elected by the citizens every four years, and the sheriff would do more traditional duties, which would be manning the jail, staffing the jail and doing security for our courts.

MARTIN: And how did the idea come about? I mean, what - was there an incident? Was there some particular reason why local citizens and certainly their elected leaders thought that it's time to consider this?

SAINES: So it's been a few things. Like I said, it's been discussed before in the past just regarding our form of government because, again, it's been in operation for 150 years, and Loudon County has grew tremendously in the last few years. Like, when I graduated high school in 1999, we only had five high schools. Here it is 2020, and we have 19 high schools. So that just gives you an example of our population growth.

And also, an example that happened in our past elections in 2019 - well, for me, at least - is, you know, we had, you know, a sheriff who ran - a Republican - and then we had a Democratic nominee. That Democratic nominee did not have no law enforcement experience whatsoever and had - he had ran a good campaign and actually got traditional endorsements. That Democratic nominee who had no law enforcement experience could've been elected as our sheriff. And that is just a very scary thought to think about.

MARTIN: It's my understanding that from my read of the the critics of this whole idea, it's a couple things. One is that Loudoun County currently has, like, the lowest crime rate of any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia, it's my understanding. And according to the Sheriff's Office statistics, their rate of use of force is much lower than in surrounding counties. So I think my understanding of it, the critics would say - well, you know the saying - if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

SAINES: Right.

MARTIN: I think some of them saw it as a kind of a criticism, right, of the...

SAINES: Yeah, I...

MARTIN: ...Sheriff's department.

SAINES: And I can understand their points of view. But, you know, you've got to keep in mind Loudoun County - you know, we do not have a lot of crime in our area. But at the same time, again, you know, we're growing. We're not a rural small county anymore. And just the example that I gave earlier, it is quite possible that we'll have two law enforcement candidates running to be sheriff who have no business being the top law enforcement official in our area, and one of them could possibly be the sheriff.

So I think it's only fair for us to review our structure, our current form of government, and also look at, you know, possibly implementing a police department, so where we have a good nationwide search, we can get the best qualified candidate.

And also, like, to say - you know, who's to say - and I made these comments the other day at the board meeting - our current sheriff could possibly be - if we were to go to a police department could be our first police chief, right? Because he - you know, I'll - and I will give credit where credit is due. He does have very good credentials. He's doing a good job as sheriff. But, you know, sometimes change is inevitable and needs to happen.

MARTIN: I've been speaking with the vice chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, Koran Saines, and Brenda Carter of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. Thank you both so much.

And we should mention that just yesterday, the NAACP in Loudon County, Va., called for an investigation into the sheriff's office after a driver, Kaheem Arkim Smith, said he was, quote, "harassed by deputies." Smith posted a video where he described being handcuffed and forbidden from filming the search of his vehicle. The sheriff's office issued a statement saying it is aware of the allegations and that the stop was part of an ongoing investigation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.