Reiss: Does History Support The Need For A Sheriff?

By RICK REISS, Chair
Los Alamos County Council
 
The history of the role of sheriff reaches back to the Anglo-Saxon period of English history, where local governments were known as shires and the principal officer of the shire was known as a reeve. The two words were combined to become “sheriff”.

Those who support an elected sheriff often refer to the history of the position as the reason to retain a sheriff. The lengthy history demonstrates significant changes in the role of the sheriff over a period of several hundred years. Notably, the appointment of the sheriff, the tasks assigned to the sheriff and the jurisdictions of the sheriff have all morphed as time has passed. History shows that as geopolitical changes occur, the office of the sheriff changes. The need for a sheriff has also changed!

The sheriffs in early England were appointed and their responsibilities were directed by the Crown. The New England Colonies defined units of government similar to those in England. Communities held annual meetings as an early form of governing. Later representatives of the communities met for the purpose of governing the shires (counties). Thus began the Board of Supervisors also known as the Board of County Commissioners. Officials were appointed by the Board for various positions including treasurer, surveyor and sheriff.

As colonist moved westward, territorial Governors assumed the duty of appointing the sheriff and other government officials. By the 1800’s appointed County Boards assumed the roles of government in their County.  As states were organized, the County Boards and the sheriffs were made elected officials.

The duties of the sheriff have changed over time as well.  Long ago, the sheriff presided over the Shire Court and was the principal officer. In Colonial times, the sheriff’s duties included tax collection and treasurer. Those duties changed as County Boards assumed administration of the counties. In fact, many sheriffs’ duties were assigned to other government officials or employees.

In New Mexico, counties aid in the administration of state policies. However, county corporate status allows for independence and self-governing. The County Commissioners (County Council in Los Alamos), may employ a County Manager and create a personnel merit system for county employees. The Manager and the personnel system indirectly affect the employees of other elected officials, including the sheriff, by setting hours of employment and rates of pay. We have seen those changes in Los Alamos County. 

Additionally, there have been changes in the jurisdictions served by a Sheriff. The Sheriff’s jurisdiction began as small administrative units of government, often the same size as a church parish. To this day, the jurisdiction of the Sheriff has always been a subset of a larger jurisdiction ranging from property owned by the Crown to the counties within the state. In New Mexico, Sheriffs are usually responsible for unincorporated areas in a County. Municipalities provide their own law enforcement within the municipality’s incorporated boundaries. 

Another unique boundary was established by an amendment to the New Mexico Constitution in 1964. It provided that small counties, such as Los Alamos, may become an “Incorporated County”.  The County must have a Charter that provides for the form and organization of government, designates the officers which shall be elected, and determines the duties officers and employees shall perform. The constitutional amendment allowed the creation of the Incorporated County of Los Alamos and its municipal boundary extends to the county boundary leaving no unincorporated county area.

History illustrates changes in the appointment, roles and jurisdictions of the sheriff.  History shows that Sheriffs have gone from principal officers to having more specifically defined roles within a specified jurisdiction. The Sheriff’s duties have changed significantly over time, adding and subtracting roles such as tax collector, treasurer, justice of the peace and constable. 

Since the 1970’s, the role, duties and need for the sheriff in Los Alamos have been debated in Councils and in public. Finally, in November, it will come to a vote by the citizens. History does not support the need for a sheriff in Los Alamos. I suggest history encourages us to eliminate the sheriff as an elected official, especially since his remaining duties can be assigned to others, there are no unincorporated areas in the County, and the County is well served by our excellent police department.  Vote “FOR” Question 1, Resolution No. 16-14.

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