In Deep South, a call to curb sheriffs' power
Not quite Mayberry: With entrenched corruption and high-profile violence, lawman's post draws new critics and reform.
In Tunica, Miss., a sheriff admitted to swiping $1,100 from a casino and claimed, "Anybody would have done what I did."Skip to next paragraph
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In Kentucky, a sheriff was assassinated during an April campaign rally a plot that some allege was masterminded by a political rival.
And in Georgia, 26 sheriffs have been convicted of various offenses in the past two decades, the latest this summer in a case of conspiracy to murder an elected successor.
The pattern of violence and corruption is prompting some states to reexamine the office of sheriff, an elected post that often gives vast law-enforcement powers and temptations to a single person. The challenges are not limited to the South. But it is here, experts say, that the office of sheriff has become the keenest focal point of power.
"A lot of Southern communities still have this tradition of fearing distant government, fearing large government and large taxes. And that would mean that those who do have power [locally] might not have to answer to too many other professional authorities," says Ted Ownby, a history professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.
But amid that regional resistance, attitudes are changing.
Earlier this month, a grand jury made the boldest call yet for Georgia reform, when it published recommendations on how to dilute the sheriff's power.
"In many areas ..., sheriffs are the most powerful political force that people have to deal with," says Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta. "You have people who become local J. Edgar Hoover types, who have a little bit on everybody."
The Georgia panel recommends that sheriffs should not have unfettered power to give lucrative jail contracts, bonding privileges, or guns and badges to just anyone; they also shouldn't use county employees and inmates for personal favors. The report says that in the case of the recent conviction in Georgia, former Sheriff Sidney Dorsey gave "certain bonding companies ... full access to the [sheriff's taxpayer-funded] fugitive squad" in exchange for favors, so that the companies "used the squad as their own personal bounty hunters."
Still, many experts are skeptical that deep reforms can take place in the South, where sheriffs in far-flung hamlets often remain the undisputed county "chiefs."
The post of Southern sheriff represents an unusual blend of American democracy and Sherwood Forest feudalism embedded enough in the culture here to inspire characters as diverse as Mayberry's kindly Andy Taylor, cruel Sheriff Stuckey in "Mississippi Burning," and the incompetent Boss Hogg of "The Dukes of Hazzard." But the composite popular-culture image, Mr. Ownby says, is of a "bumbling, fat, failed patriarch, who really hates being shown up."
The only elected law-enforcement officers in the country, sheriffs still rule largely on their own terms. At their disposal are small armies of deputies, armories of weapons, jails full of seasoned criminals, and the broad latitude of independent budgets. What's more, the sheriff has vast power to hire and fire, which can endear him to communities or breed loyalty through fear.