Sheriffs trace their heritage back to ninth century England when the King had a personal representative in each Shire whose title was the Shire Reeve. A Shire was the equivalent of an American county, and the title Shire Reeve evolved into a single word: Sheriff.
Shire Reeves executed royal writs, and were not only responsible for the police and jails, but also for collecting taxes. Their responsibilities as magistrates and chief law enforcement officers gave them broad duties and powers, but they did not have to act alone. Each English citizen was required to get involved in keeping the peace.
When English subjects came to the New World, they brought with them the traditions of the English criminal justice system, including the office of the Sheriff. From 1608 to 1783 American Sheriffs were usually large landowners’ appointed by the colonial governors. With only slight modification they performed almost the same duties as their counterparts in England.
The Chesapeake Sheriff of early Maryland settlements not only policed the counties, but also was the chief financial officer who collected taxes and fees and kept 10 percent of the proceeds.
In North Carolina the office of Sheriff has been traced back to 1739. It was said to have been created in response to public demand and quickly became one of the most important and influential positions in local government.
The Sheriff of that era had many of the traditional executive, administrative and law enforcement duties he has today. As a peace officer he had the full right of “posse comitatus,” the power to call out every man between 25 and 80-excusing only the clergy and infirm-in case of emergency.
Some of the same requirements of citizen involvement were enforced in 1654 in New Netherlands, the colony that later became New York. The New Netherlands Council, fearing attack by “pirates and vagabonds,” ordered all inhabitants to “pursue, attack and capture” all invaders when ordered to do so by local magistrates. Failure to obey meant confiscation of property and the possibility of being banished as an enemy of the state.
Today the same principle is perpetrated in the current efforts of Sheriffs to get private citizens involved in crime prevention and control. Through the National Sheriffs Association’s Neighborhood Watch Program and similar projects, they are urging individuals to make themselves and their homes more secure against criminals. They are also trying to encourage a flow of information from citizens who have knowledge of crimes or who have been witnesses to crimes. This has been described as a return to colonial traditions “when citizens shared a deeply felt obligation to involve themselves in keeping law and order.”