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."

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."

From Boss Hogg to Andy Taylor

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.

These powers were clearly abused in the case of Mr. Dorsey: This summer, a Georgia jury convicted the former DeKalb County, Ga., sheriff of conspiring to have his elected successor, Derwin Brown, gunned down in December 2000. Dorsey was known to hire conmen to run his private security details, a gang of whom killed Mr. Brown. He was sentenced to life in prison for the murder, and 23 years for corruption. As late as last week, the case was ongoing, as accomplices took the stand.

While sheriffs in poor rural areas have often fallen prey to the lure of drug money, many say Dorsey took county corruption to new levels. But he's far from the bumbling stereotype: A former Atlanta detective, he rose to take over what had been known as a corrupt department, managing the biggest jail east of the Mississippi River and a deputized force of hundreds.

The extent of his and other recent sheriffs' ill-doings, historians say, points to the behind-the-scenes corruption that has plagued the office of high sheriff since it was founded in England a millenium ago.

In America, "This kind of thing goes way back to the 18th-century sheriff, where the sheriff managed the jails while doing all kinds of things, like charging for food and allowing people to take sexual advantages of prisoners," says Wilbur Miller, a history professor at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "The only difference today is that it's more exposed."

Across the US, a call for change

The powers of elected sheriffs are also being revised in other areas of the country. Two years ago, Connecticut eliminated its six elected sheriffs altogether, in answer to a string of corruption charges.

In Delaware, New Jersey, and California, courts and legislatures have recently curbed sheriffs' powers, chiefly to undermine the lure of small-time corruption. In Pennsylvania, there's a fiery debate about just what the sheriff's role should be.

The cases, says Al Crowe, director of the National Association of Professional Process Servers in Portland, Ore., have been unambiguous – matters of "outrageous conduct that just blows your mind."

Still, most American sheriffs operate above board – even possessing some version of Andy Taylor's benevolent strength. These days, nearly every state has a sheriff school so that popularly elected novices can bone up on their responsibilities.

In Georgia, the focus is on large urban departments such as DeKalb County, where sheriffs have far more power than their rural counterparts; such districts, say reformers, could be managed by appointed police chiefs. In fact, some Georgians say the office of sheriff should go the way of horsedrawn carriages and petticoats.

Part of the problem, the National Sheriffs Association (NSA) admits, is the fact that sheriffs are elected. "The risk you run ... is you're sometimes going to get an issues contest, sometimes you're going to get a popularity contest," says Dean Keuter Jr. of the Alexandria, Va.-based NSA. Responsible to their electorate, bound to no one else, room for corruption grows.

And currently, with many state legislators coming from rural districts where sheriffs influence key lobbying groups, "Sheriffs have so much power ... that it's very, very hard to pass any broader reforms," says Mr. Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights.

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