Sheriff: Career Guide
Sheriffs are somewhat unique in law enforcement in that they are generally elected to their position rather than hired or appointed. As a result, political involvement for sheriffs is much more extensive than for other positions in law enforcement. A sheriff's position generally requires extensive law enforcement experience, chiefly in supervising patrol officers and in corrections. Sheriffs supervise patrol departments that handle general law enforcement duties. In rural areas, sheriffs generally run the county correctional facilities and small investigative departments as well. Candidates must typically have several years of law enforcement experience. Retired sheriffs may move on to run for another political office, such as the mayor. Sheriffs generally work for a single county in their state. Local government or a police commission may appoint the county sheriff, or the sheriff may be elected by county residents.
Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks
Sheriffs' responsibilities depend largely on the needs of the local community. Sheriffs complete many of the same tasks as high-ranking police officials, such as a police chiefs, including:
- Allocate budgets to law enforcement departments
- Arrest criminal suspects
- Investigate crimes
- Maintain public peace
- Make the final decision on hiring new personnel, including sworn law enforcement officials and support staff
- Perform reviews of law enforcement guidelines
- Protect the lives of citizens and of property in the county
Steps for Becoming a Sheriff
Education requirements largely depend on state and local regulations for appointing sheriffs, but the minimum requirement is a high school diploma or GED. Many localities set a minimum of an associate's degree in criminal justice or a similar field. In most jurisdictions, the sheriff is either elected by the public, or the mayor or a police commission appoint an individual to the position. Candidates typically must have extensive experience in law enforcement to earn an appointment. They must hold US citizenship, generally must be at least 21 years of age, and must be legally eligible to carry a firearm. While the process for being hired will vary, most prospective sheriffs can expect the following steps:
- Attend a degree program and/or gain experience in a related field.*
- Run for the office of sheriff in the county's election cycle.** For most states, these elections occur on a four-year cycle.
- Be elected to the post of sheriff.
- Get on-the-job training as sheriff once hired.
*Since the position of sheriff is usually elected by the public, there is usually not a minimum degree required. However, those hopeful sheriffs who are the most competitive usually have a degree in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related subject, in addition to extensive experience in the field.
**Exceptions are Alaska (which has no counties) and Connecticut (which has no county governments).
Sheriff Job Training
Training depends on the county or the state in which the sheriff has been elected or appointed. In Oklahoma, for example, sheriffs must successfully pass mandatory training at the sheriffs' administrative school. Training must be completed within the first year of service. The National Sheriffs' Association also offers popular training programs for novice sheriffs.
Other Helpful Skills and Experience
Successful sheriff candidates must have strong active listening skills, be able to make sound decisions quickly, and have the ability to negotiate, sometimes in hostile situations. Sheriffs with extensive law enforcement experience, such as working as a police officer or in corrections, generally have an advantage when being considered by the electorate or local government. Since sheriffs are usually elected by the general public, they should be able to communicate clearly and easily to a variety of audiences.
Sheriff Salary and Job Outlook
A sheriff's salary depends on the region of the country and the job description for that area. For example, large metropolitan sheriffs' departments with patrol divisions will offer higher salaries than those in rural areas. According to O*NET OnLine, a service of the US Department of Labor, sheriffs and sheriff's deputies make an average annual salary of $61,050 and can expect job growth between 5 and 9% through 2026.1
Sheriff Career Interviews
- Steve Boyer, Kitsap County Sheriff
- David Brown, Skamania County Sheriff
- Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Sheriff
- Rick Grimstead, Skagit County Sheriff
- Glenn Palmer, Grant County Sheriff
- Gary Raney, Ada County Sheriff
- Frank Rogers, Okanogan County Sheriff
If a career as a sheriff interests you, you may also want to take a look at these other related jobs:
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Approximately how many sheriffs are there in the United States?
Answer: The National Sheriffs' Association reports that as of 2018, there were 3,081 sheriffs in the US.2
Question: Is a sheriff the same as a police chief?
Answer: No. Sheriffs are typically elected officials who serve the county, while police chiefs may be appointed by local government, such as the mayor, and are responsible for the cities in which they work. Police departments and sheriff's offices are often also responsible for different law enforcement tasks, but this depends on local laws.
Question: Are there sheriffs in every state?
Answer: No. In fact, Alaska and Connecticut do not have sheriffs, Alaska because it does not have counties and Connecticut because it has no county government.
Question: What type of hours do sheriffs typically work?
Answer: A sheriff generally works full time and may be required to be on call and to work overtime as necessary.
- Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association: A nationwide organization of sheriffs and peace officers dedicated to preserving constitutional law.
- Major County Sheriffs' Association: An organization of elected sheriffs from large counties across the United States.
- National Sheriffs' Association: A non-profit organization that promotes professionalism in law enforcement and careers in criminal justice.
- Sheriff & Deputy Magazine: A bimonthly publication for sheriffs and other law enforcement professionals.
1. O*NET OnLine, Sheriffs and Deputy Sheriffs: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3051.03
2. National Sheriffs' Association: https://www.sheriffs.org/