A North Carolina prosecutor last week filed felony charges against Brindell Wilkins, the sheriff of Granville County, N.C. According to the indictment, a former deputy had recorded Sheriff Wilkins making racist comments and threatened to make them public. To protect his reputation, Sheriff Wilkins allegedly tried to hire a hit man to kill the deputy. This plan was concealed for years until recorded phone calls emerged between Sheriff Wilkins and the would-be killer.
Perhaps the most surprising part was the subsequent emergency meeting of the Granville Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners said North Carolina law tied their hands. While state law does provide for the removal of sheriff for reasons like “willful misconduct” and “intoxication,” the county commissioners were stymied by the lack of precedent and clarity. The law does not allow the commissioners to act unilaterally and since sheriff removals are so rare, they didn’t know how to proceed in such an unusual instance. (This week, Sheriff Wilkins agreed to a suspension after the Grandville County prosecutor filed a petition.)
Brindell Wilkins isn’t the only badly behaved sheriff. The Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva has been in a protracted battle with the county board of supervisors over hiring people accused of assault, protecting a deputy who faked a shooting and permitting detectives to lie under oath. Last year, The Sacramento Bee reported that the sheriff of Trinity County, Calif., Bruce Haney had moved out of state and largely stopped working, yet was still receiving his taxpayer-funded salary. He retired shortly after that became public.
But in each of these cases, local officials stood by helplessly. Why is it so hard to remove a sheriff from office, even when that person is clearly ineffective or even criminal?
Almost every county has an elected sheriff. Sheriffs serve as the primary law enforcement for many rural areas and small towns, making arrests, serving warrants and enforcing protective orders. They also help city and state police departments in various formal and informal capacities.
Sheriffs have myriad other responsibilities, as well, including operating the county jail, transporting inmates to the courthouse and evicting people. They also monitor polling places and collect taxes.
Sheriffs have a great deal of discretion in how they allocate their budget, whom they hire and whether jails are expanded or overhauled. In many states, there are few requirements to run for the office. Although their jobs require expertise, sheriffs are not vetted other than during elections, which typically have low turnout and little competition.
I spent the past year assessing the laws governing sheriff accountability and found a common theme: They lack even the most basic independent oversight and supervision. In most states, there are few or no ways to hold them accountable, even when they steal, lie or harm others. There are almost no civilian oversight commissions, no uniform disciplinary procedures, no reporting requirements in most states. In fact, sheriffs are generally afforded special protections like complete autonomy, a lack of term limits and the power to hire and fire at will, making it difficult to remove them from office.
There is a network of laws that are both hard to change — in most states, sheriffs are written into the Constitution — and so opaque that county governments struggle with how to handle erring sheriffs.
The problem of sheriffs is particularly acute in the South and Southwest, where the office has more power and was historically used to prop up white supremacy. Consider Joe Arpaio, the Arizona sheriff known for his racist tactics who defended housing inmates in un-air-conditioned tents, reinstating the chain gang and making discriminatory traffic stops.
Efforts to make sheriffs more accountable have run into roadblocks created by state sheriffs associations, powerful lobbying groups that have historically opposed legislative changes and community oversight. Last year, North Carolina voters in some counties elected sheriffs who promised to limit cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and seek better community relations. In response, lawmakers passed a bill that would have made cooperation with ICE mandatory. (The governor vetoed the bill because it was most likely unconstitutional.)
Some people have called for eliminating the office of sheriff. Here is an even more radical idea: Sheriffs should undertake reconciliation with their communities. Otherwise, progress will be incomplete and unsatisfying. The democratic process involves more than winning elections; it must include transparency and listening. Local lawmakers should establish democratic oversight structures like a civilian complaint review board that would subject sheriffs to the same requirements for accountability as other government officials.
This month, prosecutors from around the country crossed the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to acknowledge the role of racism in the legal system. What if we asked sheriffs to do the same? It was, after all, Sheriff Jim Clark of Dallas County who ordered his posse to beat, tear-gas and terrorize unarmed civil rights protesters traveling over the bridge on Bloody Sunday. Sheriffs should acknowledge the problematic role of their office in American history and reimagine a space where community control doesn’t mean the power to arrest but rather the power to heal.
Jessica Pishko (@JessPish) is a fellow at the Rule of Law Collaborative at the University of South Carolina Law School.
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