THEY didn't come on horseback. The only pistols they brandished were on the ornamental clasps of their Western-style string ties. Moreover, some of their sheriff's badges -- symbols of American law and order -- were pinned to smart dresses and pin-striped suits.
Nevertheless, there were some mighty tall white hats to be seen among the nation's sheriffs, who gathered here last week for their annual get-together. They are a reminder that to many people, today's sheriff is still law enforcement's good guy. Many Americans may not know, however, that a sheriff's duties have changed to include not only traditional law-and-order responsibilities but also newer concerns such as missing children.
Louis Gianoli, who presided over the meeting of the National Sheriffs' Association, attributes the sheriffs' good name to two things: the positive, even romantic way he has been portrayed in American culture; and the fact that he's the country's only elected representative of the law-enforcement system.
``The sheriff has had to be close to the people and win their faith, because he knew that if he didn't, he'd be out on the street,'' says Mr. Gianoli, who is in his 12th two-year term as sheriff of Marathon County in Wisconsin.
Despite the tiny clasped handcuffs that hold his tie to his shirt, Gianoli, dressed in a dark suit, does not fit the vision one generally conjures up of the sheriff. But he says the average American's association of the sheriff with ``the man who, ever since the Old West, cleaned out the bad and made things right'' has created a good image. More modern examples, such as television's sympathetic Sheriff Andy Griffith, have helped maintain that reputation, he says.
Another contributing factor, he adds, is the rural setting and small complement of most sheriffs' departments. The 3,108 sheriffs in the country have staffs ranging from Los Angeles County's 7,000 to ``a county in northern Pennsylvania, where all the help the sheriff has is his wife.'' But Gianoli says that about 85 percent of the departments are ``small,'' with fewer than 30 deputies. The small numbers and close association help create the interdependence and sense of community that good law enforcement thrives on, he says.
Yet Gianoli says he sees indications that the sheriff is losing some of his stature in the public's eye. Since Colonial times, sheriffs have enforced the law in unincorporated areas, kept county jails, and served the local judiciary in serving papers and keeping order in the courts. But, says Gianoli, some sheriffs have seen their function reduced to civil processing.
In Connecticut, for example, sheriffs serve court papers and transport prisoners, but no longer control the jails. In Michigan, state police are taking over more of the law-enforcement tasks. And in Rhode Island, sheriffs are appointed by the governor rather than elected.
It is the last situation that bothers Gianoli most.
``I'd hate to see us move toward an appointed sheriff, because I think that election gives the people an important link to law enforcement,'' he says. But he says his year as president of the sheriff's association has also revealed to him a growing interest among county boards and administrators to appoint sheriffs themselves.
This concern was not, however, generally shared by others who attended the conference. Cary Bittick, the association's executive director, noted that Multnomah County, Oregon, which once moved from elected to appointed sheriffs, has now gone back to the elected variety.
But Mr. Bittick, former sheriff of Monroe County, Ga., says he thinks the public probably has a poor idea of what the sheriff does. And he adds that this may be true in part because most people would rather forget about one of the institutions associated with sheriffs -- county jails -- and the tax dollars they require.
Yet Bittick says record-breaking attendance at this year's conference and an influx of motivated younger members suggest to him an interest in giving the sheriff as vivid a place in the people's present as he holds in their past.
This year's conference theme, Sheriffs and America's Youth, reflects that desire, he says. Acquainting youths with law enforcement, child abuse, missing children, and victims of crime in general were among the major seminar topics. In the case of a missing child, for example, Bittick says deputies are learning that ``they should exert more effort from the beginning, and not assume that the child is somewhere down the street,'' even if statistics show this is true in 90 percent of reported cases. Presentations from federal law-enforcement officials emphasized coordination of various agency efforts in locating lost children.
One NSA member who would like to see a major change in the public's image of her office is Caroline Wakefield, the sheriff of Litchfield County in Connecticut. But she says more women won't be wearing sheriff badges until the attitude among association members changes.
``It's really a private men's club,'' says Mrs. Wakefield, who entered law enforcement after retiring from the education field in 1973. She adds that the most prejudice she ever feels as a woman sheriff is ``right here at the NSA convention. They tolerate us, but that's about it.''
Another of the country's 11 women sheriffs is Judy Walden of Kenton County, Ky. She says more women would aspire to the sheriff's post if they understood that in many states -- such as Kentucky and Connecticut -- it's primarily an administrative job with little connection to the rough-and-tumble Old West image.
But then there's Sheriff Richard Thompson of Presidio County, in rural west Texas. A big man with a never-ending smile, Mr. Thompson looks the way the movies say he should: Western boots, a jacket with two front seams that end in arrowhead-shaped designs, and, of course, the tall straw Stetson.
His unaffected optimism seems appropriate as well. Teeter-tottering a toothpick between his teeth, Mr. Thompson says his 12 years as sheriff and this past year as president of the Texas Sheriffs' Association have convinced him that the sheriff's stature and recognition are growing -- at least in Texas.
``Many of us have been working to maintain our connection with the public and to keep the sheriff independent of state controls -- and that's important,'' he says. That work has helped keep the sheriff ``the best-known political candidate in every county throughout the United States,'' he adds.
As he talks, he pushes up the brim of his hat.
``I think even wearing the hat is important, because it means something to people,'' Thompson says. ``It projects the right image.''