Sheriff’s responsibilities are far-reaching

Sheriff Tommy Allen

February 13, 2014

Last month I began addressing the importance of this year’s local sheriff’s election. I began by addressing the history of the Office of Sheriff and how it has evolved from early European times to the American colonies; to the Wild West; to today’s modern law enforcement agency. This month I’d like to address what the public should look for and expect from their sheriff.

Today’s modern sheriff must have a good sense as to how to run a business. The combined operations budget for the Sheriff’s Office, Jail and 911 Center is approximately $4.4 million. Over two-thirds of that is fixed costs that you have little or no control over. The sheriff must have a good understanding of how a Sheriff’s Office, Jail and 911 Center works so he will understand the nature and needs of both fixed costs and variable costs.

Like with any business there is a “product” and the sheriff’s product is service and the public is his customers. A Sheriff must know how to provide this service in an effective and professional manner. The sheriff will never have the resources to do everything for everyone all the time. Priorities must be set. Like the budget, there are certain “fixed” duties he must perform, such as the security in the courts; mental patient transports; civil processes that are involved and complicated. He must provide storage space for evidence; health care for jail inmates; meet and deal with vendors that do everything from provide uniforms to the officers to negotiating contracts for patrol vehicles, radio equipment, vehicle tires, jail equipment repair, or jail food service contracts; and this list is long and complicated and almost endless. These are things the public does not always see or hear about but must be done and handled properly or there are significant consequences.

The sheriff is considered the highest law enforcement officer in the county with great powers. He must have a good working knowledge of civil and criminal laws. The Sheriff’s Office provides law enforcement patrol and response to all areas of the county that do not have their own police force and is back-up to those that do.

The sheriff must have a good working knowledge of how other law enforcement agencies, local, state and federal, interrelate with his operations. He must know what their jurisdictions are and when he can call on them and what he can expect their level of service to be. Whether it’s the FBI, SBI, Secret Service, DEA, ATF, U.S. Marshal’s Service and that list goes on and on, the sheriff must know how these agencies work and what services they may provide. It’s not unusual for these agencies to contact the sheriff to request he and his staff work with them.

There is a pretty big learning curve for any new sheriff. Every sheriff in N.C. will tell you that this learning curve is not measured in days and weeks but in months and even years. Your new sheriff would like to have six months to a year “honeymoon” period where the public will understand that he is new and learning the ropes and have time to plan and get organized. But business starts immediately upon being sworn into office and he will likely have a number of major issues and events the first few of days. That’s just the way it is.

In summary, your sheriff must be capable of being responsive to the needs of the communities; project the image of a leader; and be able to confidently make tough decisions that affect the lives of many people. He must be able to enforce the laws equally across the board and at the same time be sensitive to both victims and defendants. He must be able to speak in public before news cameras, civic groups and school classes. The late Paul Harvey once said, “…he must be a minister, social worker, diplomat, a tough guy and a gentleman” — all at the same time.

Most importantly, your next sheriff must never forget from where he gets his authority — that’s the people who elected him. They only ask that he be responsive and do a fair and honest job. These should be your expectations for your next sheriff.