2021 in Sheriffs: An Unusually Optimistic Newsletter
This November, there were several reform-minded sheriffs elected in jurisdiction across the county in places like Georgia, Texas, Ohio, and South Carolina. Many of the new sheriffs are more diverse than their predecessors and peers. In Fort Bend, Texas, for example, the newly-elected sheriff Eric Fagan is the first Black sheriff in the county since Reconstruction.
This isn’t terribly hard because elected sheriffs remain the whitest, most masculine elected office in the nation. (To be fair, law enforcement, in general, skews very male; while many agencies have many female civilian positions, sworn officers are mostly male.) It was only in 2019 that Missouri finally elected a female sheriff (three to be exact), and two women taking office this week are also firsts. (One sheriff association bigwig commented he was sure "there are more females interested in running for sheriff.”) Ladies, we have arrived!
Diversifying the pool of sheriffs alone doesn’t ensure a better system, and I always have personal qualms celebrating the representational diversification of a system whose very existence is, at the root, anti-feminist and anti-Black. But, given the history of the sheriff’s office in particular, (and my promise to say something positive for once) it is meaningful and worth comment. Post-Reconstruction, Black men ran and won the office of sheriff in many Southern counties, something seen as a threat to the white elite, who reacted with violence and political backlash. In fact, one of the common state requirements still in existence – that sheriffs pay a cash bond upon their election before assuming office – was instituted to make it harder for Black men to be sheriffs under the assumption they would be less likely to have the bond amount.
It’s not unheard of for sheriffs to create trouble for those who follow, both personally and through the lobbying of state sheriff associations. In Alabama, for example, sheriffs have been known to destroy electronics, drain money from the sheriff’s accounts with unnecessary purchases, and, in some cases, fill trucks with food and run off with it (oddly downplayed as reasonable “small feuds” by the octogenarian executive director of the Alabama Sheriffs Association). Mature adults, obviously. And when voters in North Carolina elected a cohort of sheriffs who promised not to cooperate with ICE, the state association tried to pass a bill that would mandate sheriff cooperation with ICE.
There are already rumblings of dirty tricks this year. Kristin Graziano, who was just sworn in as sheriff in Charleston, South Carolina this week, has faced problems from Al Cannon, the man she once worked for (until he fired her) and the outgoing sheriff. Cannon’s second-in-command Mitch Lucas sent an office-wide email insulting Graziano’s ability to lead, which seemed mean-spirited and spurious, implied that she might fire everybody, and then doubled-down to defend himself. Cannon defended Lucas and downplayed his attitude as “gruff.” (I tend to agree with Graziano’s analysis that this was largely sexism in action.)
Winning the election is just the beginning for new sheriffs. Because sheriffs have traditionally had such long terms in office – and because this isn’t a subject most people report on due to lack of transparency – we know very little about how new sheriffs can change the culture within their office nor how newer sheriffs interact with other criminal system actors, like prosecutors and judges. As Professor Lauren Ouziel explains in her excellent law review article, the criminal legal system has democratic and bureaucratic elements. While sheriffs (like prosecutors and mayors) are elected with high hopes for dramatic change, the bureaucratic reality doesn’t just stymie big moves; it also attempts to shift the narrative away from one of progress. Lauren does a much better job explaining this than I do, but my take-away is that there’s a big gap between the democratic “wins” and the implementation of policy that tends to be glossed-over by advocates, but is actually the root of the problem. As always in criminal system policy, the diffuseness of a system where power is distributed between different bodies (not all elected) combines with the lack of transparency and data to mute wins that seem to reflect the community’s position on the issues.
Lauren also points out that the problems are even more complicated when we look at the relationship between elected officers, like sheriffs, and their deputies. She suggests that this is because career officers see their job as separate from politics. In other words, while sheriffs are concerned about being responsible to those who got them elected, career officers don’t have the same burden. They may internalize their commitment to their job as an “objective” commitment to law and order. (E.g. “I just enforce the law.”) We’ve seen in the prosecutorial context just how adversarial this can get – cough, cough, Los Angeles. Historically, prosecutors who don’t like their new boss sometimes go to the next county and work. But, some sheriff deputies are unionized and, unlike attorneys who are certified professionals (so they tell me), deputies and civilian personnel don’t quite have the same options in terms of mobility. (Lauren also points this out when she discusses the higher mobility of prosecutors versus career law enforcement.)
In my opinion, it’s quite a quandary and one that deserves some serious attention. While it might be simple from the outside to argue that a new sheriff (or district attorney) should just fire everyone who isn’t enthusiastic about the new regime, there are labor concerns (unions generally have a last-in-last-out policy), public perception concerns (in smaller counties, firing a lot of people means you are pissing off a lot of people), and practical concerns. People who are long-time employees in a public department understand how systems work; they know how data is kept and where; they understand which person in which department must be (metaphorically) massaged to get what you need. Sheriff’s offices include not just sworn officers, but also civilian personnel who have developed expertise. Lauren Ouziel suggests increased dialogue as a partial solution, and she rightly points out, I think, the fact that listening to constituencies that get reform-minded candidates elected often alienates rank-and-file (and vice versa). I could see how this is basically a feature of the current system – there are so many parties with a stake in the outcomes that change, if it comes, is glacial or non-existent. Reading about the lack of change in response to, for example, DOJ directives or say a global pandemic pushes me towards the position that dismantling the system may be more important than electing different leaders. But I digress.
Don’t misread me to say that hiring better people isn’t important. It is. But there are practical concerns when you need to figure out how to get the budget done and approved on time. Plus, while I don’t have information on this regarding deputies (and I don’t think it exists), one of the reasons why problem cops keep getting rehired, according to Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport, might be because the other options are worse. So, it could also be similarly hard to find good deputies. I am just wildly speculating here, but I am interested to find out.
1) This story about a border sheriff was interesting. Sometimes people assume that sheriffs who actually police border counties are more anti-immigrant or detain more immigrants than other counties. My experience is that it isn’t true, as this reflects. (Caveat, I don’t know this sheriff beyond the article.)
2) I’m going to write more on this next week, but the Missouri sheriffs have banded together to form a new lobbying group and demand money from the state which, they say, owes them money for holding people who are actually under the care of the state. They claim it goes back a decade.