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Sheriff refers both to a political or legal office held under English common law or American common law, and to the person who holds such office.

Modern Usage

In the United States the sheriff is elected to head a county police agency. The political election of a person to serve as a police leader is a uniquely American tradition. All police working for the agency headed by a sheriff are called deputy sheriffs which in common usage is often shortened to either deputy.

In the USA, the relationship between the sheriff and other police departments varies widely from state to state, and in some states from county to county. In little populated counties, the sheriff is the most powerful figure, but in some cities the sheriff does little more than keep the jail. Many U.S. cities and some counties have a chief of police[?] who is the actual head of the police department. The chief of police is usually not an elected office.

In many U.S. jurisdictions, the sheriff also has duties with regard to service of process[?] and summonses that are issued by state courts. The sheriff also often conducts auction sales of real property in foreclosure[?] in many jurisdictions, and is often also empowered to conduct seizures of chattel property that is being seized to satisfy a judgment.


Like the word sheriff itself, the office of sheriff has an interesting history. In Anglo-Saxon England, a reeve was an officer who was appointed by the king to be responsible for the public business of the locality. A high-ranking official, the shire-reeve was the representative of the royal authority in a shire or county. The office of sheriff was continued after the Norman conquest.

The most famous holder of this office was the folkloric Sheriff of Nottingham (http://www.adrianmiller.co.uk/internationalheros/sheriff.htm), enemy of Robin Hood.

Fictional sheriffs

Many western movies feature sheriffs of frontier towns who are either corrupt, weak, or glorious heroes eventually able to rid their town of all its mean elements. See Destry Rides Again and Dodge City for two examples of the latter type.

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