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The Appeal Podcast: The Power of Sheriffs

With Appeal contributor Jessica Pishko.

Hisashi Ohkawa

In the past few years, criminal justice reformers have focused on city police departments and prosecutors. What might be gained from focusing on sheriffs’ departments? Sheriffs wield a tremendous amount of power in our criminal justice system but largely fly under the radar. Often running on tough on crime platforms, once elected, they are largely unaccountable to city councils and other elected officials. Appeal writer Jessica Pishko has recently written an explainer on the subject, and joins to talk about county sheriffs.

The Appeal is available on iTunes and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Twitter.


Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page and you can always subscribe to us on iTunes. These days police and prosecutors are the primary focus of criminal justice reform efforts, but increasingly those trying to curb the excesses of our system are turning their attention to the institution of county sheriffs. Elected, but paradoxically, largely unaccountable, sheriffs in many districts act with little oversight and spend much of their time reinforcing racist hierarchies and demagoguing for TV cameras. Appeal Writer Jessica Pishko has recently written an explainer for The Appeal on the subject and joins us to talk about the history and inherent problems with the institution of sheriffs.


[Begin Clip]

Jessica Pishko: Historically, one would say that the role of sheriff played a more dominant role in the South, the South and the West, and that dominant role would primarily be a role of enforcing segregation, enforcing Jim Crow and ensuring that white people stayed in power.

[End Clip]

Adam: Jessica, thank you so much for joining us.

Jessica Pishko: Thanks for having me.

Adam: So you have written a rather lengthy and robust explainer on sheriffs and what sheriffs are, something that maybe at first sight, one wouldn’t think we wouldn’t need an explain on, but after reading your explainer it is quite clear that we do, which is to say that most people I think don’t actually really know what sheriffs do. Can you start by sort of giving us a sense of what sheriffs are, what their scope is generally? I know they vary based on the state and what some of the history of the sheriff is.

Jessica Pishko: Sure. Be happy to do that. So the sheriffs don’t play as big of a role in urban areas as they do in rural areas and so I think that for many people it’s not something that they’re as familiar with. Basically to kind of go through the history of the sheriff. The sheriff was a position that was developed in England, which is where the word sheriff comes from.

Adam: The Sheriff of Nottingham, right.

Jessica Pishko:  Like the Sheriff of Nottingham. So back in those times actually the sheriff’s primary role was as tax collectors. So their job was to sort of go around and collect money from people. When sheriffs came to the new world they took on a kind of a law enforcement role. And so particularly as the colonies expanded westward into more rural areas, sheriffs became more important kind of a quasi law enforcement, quasi tax collection, quasi administrative role, right? So their job has always been kind of piecemeal. When different states began to develop their state constitutions, the role of sheriff was written into the constitution as an elected position, which is very important to the role of the sheriff. So the sheriff is very much seen as a kind of popularly elected, they represent the people, they enforce the laws that the people want. Right? So this is kind of where it gets really interesting. And today the role of the sheriff, sheriffs can serve multiple functions kind of depending on where you are. In some places the role of the sheriff is limited to something like a marshall. They take people from the jail to the hospital, they take people to court right? It’s sort of like a US Marshall or bailiff. In most places sheriffs manage the local county jail, so they are in charge of maintaining the jail and showing that people are safe and healthy inside the jail, and then in other places sheriffs serve even more of an investigative role, so they have a role in investigating crimes, arresting people and those types of things. So what’s kind of interesting about the job is that it’s, it’s different in different parts of the country, but also they sort of have this very expansive role that encompasses more than, generally more things than police do. Right? And if you live in a county where the sheriff is your primary law enforcement, then they are also the person that responds to you for everything from missing people to murders to things like you have someone cooking meth next door, right? So you’re going to have, the sheriff’s going to deal with lots of different kinds of issues within their community.

Adam: So because its typically countywide it’s kind of a backstop. It’s that which is not necessarily incorporated city falls within the jurisdiction of a sheriff. Right?

Jessica Pishko: Right. So in most, now, this again varies in some places, but in most places, so for example, if you are in Baltimore city and something happens, that jurisdiction will generally be the Baltimore Police Department, but if you were outside of the city and in a county, it will be the Baltimore Sheriff, the county sheriff be the one in charge of whatever investigation. So this is where we sort of get it into that rural, urban, for lack of a better word, kind of meaning everything that’s not in the city, uh, for, for lack of it’s, I don’t know if that’s the best word for everything not in city limits.

Adam: Right. And the point of the explainer and the point of this episode of course, is not to just to do like a schoolhouse rock thing. We are saying that there are fundamental problems in this setup and arrangement. So can we talk a bit about some of the existential problems from a criminal justice reform standpoint of sheriff’s, uh, specifically the nature in which they are elected?

Jessica Pishko: Sure, I mean, I think the first, you know, certainly the existence of them is not a problem, but they present a challenge. Like I said, one because they are elected and two because they have been given very broad powers and a lot of discretion. So not unlike elected prosecutors, one of the things about sheriffs that makes them interesting is that they’re able to do many different things and then they’re often not really an entity or a person who has a check on them. So usually a police chief is appointed by a mayor or a city council and then becomes the check on the police chief, so you know, the city council or mayor can change the budget or adjust what the police chief wants to buy. Drones, let’s say, the mayor or city council can often intervene and say, well, that’s not what we’re going to do. Now, sheriff’s on the other hand have pretty broad authorities. There’s not a lot telling them what they can and can’t do. There’s also not a lot of rules about who they can and can’t hire. So today, most urban police groups have rigorous training, they have a lot of rules, they’ll have an academy and while some sheriff deputies, so the people that work in the sheriff’s department, deputies, while some may have training, some may not. Um, and if you look at many county sheriff departments you will find that hiring is, there’s a lot of nepotism in hiring. It’s basically easier to get hired as a sheriff deputy. Often, actually, the other thing people might complain about is that the pay is often less.

Adam: Right.

Jessica Pishko: (Chuckles)  Kind of comes with the, comes with the territory. They don’t have as many checks on their power so, you know, one issue that often comes up if you think of someone like Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a good example, right? I mean he sort of, I think an extreme example, but he could do what he did because he had a lot of power. He could make inmates wear pink underwear. He could make them live in tents. He could say what he wanted, you know, I mean I think his jails were famous, but other things he did were things like he said that he that wouldn’t enforce a gun laws, possession for example. He, you know, said that we wanted to enforce immigration laws. Right? And do things like pull over everybody who looked Hispanic. So in the famous like show-your-papers law that he instituted, right? That he decided he was gonna pull over anybody he wanted, anyone who looked brown, um, if they were a US citizen, even when the police chiefs didn’t want to do that. Right? So, and so that’s I think where we get to why sheriffs today, like sheriffs generally play a bigger role in immigration or not. Um, but you know, and you think about it really that I think the immigration law has come to the forefront. But when you think about all the things they do, like for example, housing people in jails, making sure they have healthcare, do people get treatment if they’re in opioid withdrawal or not? These are decisions that sheriff’s can make. I mean, and that’s why it can feel like a sheriff has a fiefdom. Right? That they can sort of do what they want and just kind of as a historical note, when the Civil Rights Movement was occurring in the 1960s, you know, a lot of the people who did, who blocked voters, who blocked protests, who decided that it was okay to use violence against protesters, I mean, these were sheriffs. I mean mostly white elected sheriffs who felt that because it was their territory they were within their right to say, you know, ‘We’re not gonna let protesters come. We’re not going to let people March here, we are going to try to block people from voting.’ So I mean, you know, the history of sheriffs is kind of fraught with all this. A lot of racial tension because of that.

Adam: Right. And of course we know one of the most famous sheriffs is Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County, Alabama, who was responsible for the crackdown on Selma, the Selma marches in the 1960s. And it seems like there’s this sort of mentality, this kind of western Walker Texas Ranger-y,  hang ’em high, this-is-my-town, western mentality behind a lot of sheriffs. Um, you note that all states have a version of sheriff’s, uh, except for Alaska and Hawaii and that most of them are elected and they almost all have kind of broad powers. Just to kind of give a sense of context, you list some, some, some examples of what would be sort of extreme, the extreme end of this. Uh, although I think this is probably not as unique as people think, you’re explainer says, quote, “In Alabama, for example, sheriffs legally had the discretion to use state money to feed prisoners in any way they chose. Some opted to feed people cheaply and pocket the remainder, or use it for questionable purchases like cars and homes. In Etowah County, Sheriff Todd Entrekin used more than $750,000 from his office’s fund to buy a beach house and pay for other personal expenses. In Morgan County, Greg Bartlett was nicknamed “Sheriff Corndog” for feeding prisoners corndogs for two meals a day.” And you mention another that charged detainees $5 for rent and the attorney general investigated this and found suicides in his jails were much higher than the national average. And obviously we have Sheriff Arpaio who does the sort of gratuitous, punitive, tough to, you know, and he got it, he even had puff pieces like in 20/20 in the 2000s about ‘he makes them wear pink underwear,’ ‘he’s the world’s toughest sheriff.’ It seems like yeah, there’s, there’s this kind of runaway demagoguery, this kind of right-wing demagoguery that sheriffs embody about being tough and typically targeting that quote unquote “toughness” to people of color and immigrants and Latinos and black people.

Jessica Pishko: Right. Everyone not white. And I mean I have not and I don’t know that anyone has done consistent research on this to see, you know, how the race of the sheriff matches demographics of townies and that’s a part of a project I’m working on. My suspicion is that you’re going to find, as you do with prosecutors, and awful lot of white sheriffs, and again this is not unique because I think when we looked at prosecutors the studies of elected prosecutors have also found that elected prosecutors tend to be white. So you know, even though and I think this is kind of interesting because they are popularly elected, that that does not necessarily mean that they represent the demographics of the county. So just for example, even counties that are primarily black counties might still have a white sheriff. Most of them do. I guess that sort of gets into a discussion of voting and democracy and you know how those are or aren’t counted. Like I said, I haven’t done all the research enough on voting and you know how those match demographics, but you will find that that’s a pattern.

Adam: So states in the South, southern states, have broadly more of a racial component to them given the obvious history of law enforcement in the South. This is not a huge stretch. Northeast states, as you mentioned, relied on what’s called constables who were sort of more like a police chiefs traditionally. Can we talk about some of the more extreme versions of, of like what the history of sheriffs in the South are and what that legacy entails now for people who aren’t white?

Jessica Pishko: Yeah I mean, I want to add in all fairness, so for example, one of the worst examples of current sheriffs is the current sheriff of Bristol County, Massachusetts.

Adam: Totally. Yeah. We don’t want to do the thing where we say that. Yeah.

Jessica Pishko: Yeah I want to clarify that it’s a problem in many places. First I will put this forward about sheriffs, there’s not a ton of research on it. I think that historically one would say that the role of sheriff played a more dominant role in the South, the South and the West, and that dominant role would primarily be a role of enforcing segregation, um, enforcing Jim Crow and ensuring that white people stayed in power. I don’t think that that’s too much of a stretch. Now, this was the time that the position was created and it was written into state constitutions. Over time as, you know, systems have evolved, as we’d seen times change as civil rights movements have come and gone and changed that the role hasn’t changed a lot. That the constitutions haven’t changed a lot because that’s very hard and that the same people keep getting reelected. So you have an incumbency problem where the same people, the same institutions continue even though one could say that progressive politics might call for something else. Right? So I just think it’s an interesting problem that once a sheriff is elected, their motivation is going to primarily be to satisfy those people that put him or her in office rather than to ensure a parity or equality. You know, you could say that a judge, let’s say their job is to insure parity or equality because maybe they have a lifetime appointment, whether that’s true or not, I guess you could debate, but let’s say you say, okay, federal judge has a lifetime appointment. You know, they can, they don’t have to worry about it. Sheriffs are always, you know, every four years most of them are running for election and a lot of them honestly, you know, they come from various backgrounds. Some of them don’t have a lot of law enforcement experience to begin with. I mean they come from backgrounds of business, of ranching.

Adam: Yeah. Let’s, let’s talk about that. Most people don’t know this, but like people who are elected sheriff don’t actually need to have any law enforcement experience whatsoever. And quite a few don’t.

Jessica Pishko: Nope. You don’t have to have any law enforcement. You just have to get elected.

Adam: You just have to have the look. You have to have the toothpick and the mustache and like give the general impression that you have sheriff-like properties. You have to look like Jeff Bridges from Hell or High Water. That’s in my mind.

Jessica Pishko: (Laughs.) You just have to get elected! Most states, this is a project I’m undertaking is to sort of categorize what the requirements are in each state. Most states you don’t have to have any, you have to be a citizen of a certain age, a little bit like the requirements for being president. There’s no requirement that you have any particular educational background or experience.

Adam: Speaking of no experience and this dovetails, I think with that issue, which is that in a lot of counties and a lot of places, sheriffs double as the coroner and they’re in charge of officially determining cause of death without any medical expertise or forensic expertise. Can you talk about that and some of the problems inherent in that?

Jessica Pishko: Yes. I think this is really fascinating. So, so in some places, so and I think Radley Balko’s book has covered this pretty well, his new book, I think the role of coroner and the role of sheriff in many places is sort of united. In some places you still elect a separate sheriff and a separate coroner, and most of those places, the coroner, elected coroner, does not need to have medical experience. In some places in California you have what’s called an elected sheriff-coroner. So the sheriff is also the coroner. The coroner determines the official cause of death. Now you will generally have someone called a forensic examiner, who might be the individual who does the actual autopsy. The sheriff-coroner is the person who actually signs off on the cause of death. So an example where that caused problems is San Joaquin County where there the forensic examiner was Dr. Omalu. Now Dr. Omalu is a particularly interesting forensic examiner. He is the man who did, who is featured in the Concussion movie. He has, I mean he’s, he’s sort of I think come to prominence as someone who is trying to bring like a lot of scientific rigor to his profession and has done a lot of work with NFL players. So he’s a, he’s a guy who’s really trying to bring that scientific rigor. And he left his post in San Joaquin County because the sheriff was signing off on certain deaths as quote, “accidental” and so one of the accidental deaths, for example, one was suffocation. Now suffocation is an interesting one because you know, the cause of death will be asphyxiation right? They couldn’t get enough air. Now how you asphyxiate then, right? That’s not the medical cause of death, but how one asphyxiates if someone is, you know, holding your face to the ground and you suffocate and die, right? That’s not necessarily an accidental death. Um, another one I think involved a taser so that sheriff in San Joaquin County had argued that someone was tased to death, um, and marked that as an accidental death rather than a homicide. Right? So, you know, it’s kind of that tweaking. Now, the reason why that’s important honestly, is because if you tag a death as accidental and not homicide there’s no further investigation. Right?

Adam: Right. And in many instances, they’re of course investigating themselves, whether it’s a death in the county prison or it’s a death in police custody or obviously even been a police shooting, the sheriff’s themselves are investigating their own sort of dubious circumstances.

Jessica Pishko: Yeah their own people. I mean if you don’t tag a death as homicide, no one will investigate it because people don’t investigate accidental deaths. And so that in itself presents a big problem. I mean, I just think it’s really interesting that the role kind of got combined because I think the incentive for a sheriff to flag depths as homicides to be investigated is going to be pretty low.

Adam: Yeah especially when it’s their own people.

Jessica Pishko: Right in that case, so that was Sheriff Steve Moore, so he got voted out of office based on that. But honestly it was because someone had the stones to make a public statement about it and say that that was wrong.

Adam: Yeah this seems like an interesting fulcrum or entry point into criminal justice reform because it is elected extensively. There are a progressive criminal reform, Black Lives Matter or some sort of public defender who was a huge advocate of reform could in theory run for sheriff and win. There seems to be some fertile ground there in terms of a reform. The question I have to you is at what does a, in your mind, a quote unquote “progressive,” what would a progressive sheriff look like? Can you kind of speculate on that sort of get outside of your, of your reporter hat and sort of-?

Jessica Pishko: That’s a broad speculation.

Adam: Broad speculation, yeah.

Jessica Pishko: So some people might know I’m actually doing a project, it’s the Sheriff Accountability Project through the Rule of Law Initiative at the University of South Carolina Law School. You can shout out to my sponsors in the project and the project itself and the goal of the project is in fact to one, map exactly what sheriff’s roles are and who is supposed to be holding them accountable, but two, to use that to create a template for informing people, can be informing electorate advocates and reporters, but also to say, well, how would you even create a map for that? I think that right now, you know, I think people have successfully created a map for a progressive prosecutor and even a progressive police chief, but I really think there is no map for how sheriffs, how sherriffs can be progressive and I think there’s actually a rather urgent need for it because right now, you know, as many criminal justice organizations have pointed out, the greatest growth of incarceration is not in the cities. It’s in rural areas, it’s in suburban areas, and these are the places where we see a lot of people being jailed for a long time in very overcrowded and pretty poor conditions. A lot of rural jails, they look like relics of the 19th century. Some of them might well be relics, you know, it’s just not, it’s not something that’s been a big focus. Not something that people go to see, you know, and whereas county jail, a lot of people go in and out of Cook County jail, a rural jail, you might, you know, in a rural jail you might see five people come in to that rural jail. It is not a lot, you know, it’s not a lot of people. And I think we see that and when we look at incarceration rates in non-urban areas, we see that that’s where the increase is. I think that part of that is likely the role of the sheriff and criminal justice because sheriffs honestly are just not thinking about reform when they’re thinking about their role.

Adam: Yeah. There’s a certain image surrounding them as well. Right?

Jessica Pishko: Yeah. I think some of it, some of it is who they’re, you know, I don’t know how to frame this other than clientele. In many rural places, you know, funding for sheriff elections comes from big agriculture, big business owners. They are concerned about protecting property, less concerned about things like, you know, racial equality. Although it also presents interesting visions when you come to immigration. I do think that the current focus on immigration is providing an entry point for people to look at what sheriffs are doing. And we saw in some recent elections that, like in Mecklenburg County, immigration was a point where people were paying attention. But my, I mean, my goal and the project’s goal is really to get people to pay attention to all these other things. So for example, jail deaths, you know, are people dying from basically forced withdrawal. Do jails provide, you know, medically assisted, I guess medically assisted therapy to people who have an opioid or other addiction, are jails providing adequate healthcare otherwise, adequate housing, what can they do to prevent suicides? I think the suicide question is an interesting one that, you know, sheriffs are quick to brush off. So I think it’s, it’s kinda like a place where people maybe are, have been reluctant to poke, sort of like poking this underbelly. And I mean I think part of that discomfort has been the role of the sheriff as associated with enforcing segregation, right? Enforcing policies that, to be honest are really anti-progressive. I think that that in and of itself has made it hard for people to envision a different kind of sheriff. I do think what we’ll see is people putting maybe more limits, more places sheriffs power can be checked. We are starting to see that, for example, in Alabama, as you pointed out, where sheriffs were permitted to kind of use food money for inmates to sort of put into this slush fund and sheriffs were loosely monitored. So this is why many of them took that money to do other things. Again, this is not uncommon to have a slush fund. A sheriff in Georgia had a slush fund of money that was taken and used it to buy like this big muscle car, big black tinted windowed muscle car kind of thing. Right? So this idea of using the money for your, mixing the personal and work is not an unusual thing.

Adam: Yeah. I feel like I should have become a sheriff.

Jessica Pishko: Yeah.

Adam: I didn’t realize there was all these freebies.

Jessica Pishko: You could have bought a huge muscle car.

Adam: And a beach house.

Jessica Pishko: (Laughs.) Yeah a muscle car or a beach house. And I think that one , there has to be more people watching what they’re doing but two, the awareness that you can, that maybe there’s a way to check that power. I think in a lot of places, you know, one place I was thinking of is in Louisiana where Sheriff Ackal, The Advocate just did a really good series on Sheriff Ackal who I think is not running again, but for a long time has really, I mean he was getting sued so much for excessive force that he was dropped from his insurance. I mean that’s sort of like you’ve gotten so many car accidents, you can’t get car insurance right? These deputies were beating so many people up they can’t get insurance. Which on that face is pretty bad. Right?

Adam: Yeah.

Jessica Pishko: I think the people that have felt sort of helpless to do anything because I mean, one, he was an incumbent, but two, I think the role itself has kind of gotten wrapped in these things and people sort of say, ‘oh, well what can we, there’s nothing we can do about it.’

Adam: Right. Well I think that the take home point is that this is a nascent sort of area for reform and I think it’s very exciting and I look forward to keeping track of it. So I’m glad you sort of started off with the primer, so people who are uninitiated can read, um, it’ll be on The Appeal’s website, it’ll be a sheriff explainer. Definitely check it out. And um, thank you so much. We will follow up on this thread, uh, in a few months for sure because I think it’s interesting and I look forward to seeing what else you come up with.

Jessica Pishko: Thank you.

Adam: Thanks to our guest, Appeal writer, Jessica Pishko. This has been The Appeal podcast. Remember, you can always follow us on Twitter @TheAppealPod, you can follow us on Facebook at The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook page which you could find at The Appeal and you can always subscribe and rate us on iTunes. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Sarah Leonard. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much for joining us.

Correction: An earlier version of this podcast stated that football player Aaron Hernandez died in the Bristol County jail. In fact, he died at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center.