Half Past the Month: ‘We’ll Miss Sheriffs When They’re Gone’

December 23, 2013

Sheriffs, please understand, are different from the tawdry mix of ambition and vanity that makes up local officialdom. Sheriffs are precursors of our constitutional republic and its attendant democracy. They arose in first-century Anglo-Saxon England or even with the Norse. They were the natural, chosen leaders of their communities (shires), their title dating back to Alfred the Great.

Sheriffs in this Alfredian mold spoke truth to power. They kept local order, but more important to this discussion they represented to the king the legitimate interests and concerns of common folk — primarily regarding the protection of property and individual liberty, both unique to our Anglosphere.

The character built into the office was wisely carried over to the legal codes of colonial American government by William Penn and others.

Today, not so much. Sheriffs in metropolitan counties appear most concerned with protecting a system of double-dip pensioning. A friend, retired from law enforcement here, remembers observing one of the state’s first Special Weapons and Tactics team go through its drills. He thought at the time that he might have seen the last of the traditional Indiana sheriffs. Future deputies, he fears, will be mere pension-chasing employees, indistinguishable from policemen, restaurant inspectors, meter readers and other hired muscle for the city, county or state.

And yet, the sheriff still stands strong in rural America. A recent quote from a Colorado sheriff protesting his state’s new gun laws is representative: “In my oath it says I’ll uphold the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Colorado. It doesn’t say I have to uphold every law passed by the Legislature.”

Clearly, the sheriff can be a drag on central authority — again, it is historically built into the job. Local politicos, therefore, are tightening a fiscal noose around the office, reducing it to something resembling an armed postmaster. And it is no accident that legislatures long ago forced sheriffs into term limits.

Nor is it a statistical quirk that sheriffs who choose an Alfredian role are routinely the big vote getters in their counties. The electorate senses that the local sheriff, anachronism though he may seem to be, is more on its side than the rest of officialdom — the only hope, perhaps.

Finally, sheriffs are mentioned prominently in the Magna Carta, the earliest expression of limited government. Fourteen sheriffs or former sheriffs were either in an advisory capacity in the writing of the Magna Carta or were direct participants. And of the document’s 63 clauses, 27 are directly concerned with the sheriff and his office.

So as we watch the elect in Washington and Indianapolis assume the despotic power of kings, crime closes in on our businesses and homes. We look for at least one more sheriff with that old-fashioned true grit.

We will know him by how he treats private property and individual liberty. — tcl



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