What’s the difference between a county sheriff and the local police?

A quick look at the office of county sheriff and how it's different than local and state police.

A common question when people see that they’ve being asked to vote for County Sheriff in an election is “What’s the difference between the sheriff and the police?” Another is “Why do we elect our sheriff, but not our police chief?”

This article is the second in a series looking at some of the less well known elected offices Michigan residents are asked to vote for on Election Day. Part one answered the question “What Does a Drain Commissioner Do?”

The simple answer to why we elect our sheriff is that it’s required by our state’s constitution. The constitution doesn’t specify what a sheriff’s duties are, except to say that the sheriff’s duties and powers “shall be provided by law.” This means it is largely up to the legislature to determine the powers and duties of the sheriff. Many of these are prescribed in Chapter 51 of the Michigan Compiled Laws, though other responsibilities are spread throughout the statutes.

As a county officer, a sheriff has law enforcement authority throughout their county, including its cities, villages, and townships. The sheriff’s primary responsibilities, are the maintenance of law and order in areas of the county not adequately policed by local authorities, and to respond to the law and order needs of citizens within local jurisdictions if local law enforcement is unable to do so.

As the peace officer for the county, the sheriff is responsible for preserving the peace within the county. There are some responsibilities that are specifically mandated by the constitution and the legislature, and others that the sheriff carries out in pursuit of law and order. Specifically, mandated services include being the principle officer for the Michigan Court System, making the sheriff responsible for Court security, among other related duties. Another mandated responsibility is the establishment and operation of the County Jail and other related services.

The elected sheriff is also the head of the Office of Sheriff, and responsible for carrying out the responsibilities of the sheriff using funding provided by the County Commission. The sheriff has authority within their department, including managing staff, the finances of the office within the budget set by the County, and ensuring that the duties of the sheriff are carried out. Thus, in order to successfully carry out their duties an elected sheriff must have knowledge of criminal and civil law and procedure, provisions relating to the custody of inmates, civil rights, business administration, police management, employee and labor relations, personnel administration, and fiscal management.

The primary differences between a sheriff’s department and a local police department are their jurisdiction and legal requirement. While a city police department’s jurisdiction extends only to the boundaries of the city, the sheriff’s jurisdiction crosses local boundaries within the county it is responsible for. Local police remain responsible for maintenance of law and order and other peace officer duties within their local units, and are employed by cities, villages, and townships, rather than counties. While the sheriff is a constitutionally mandated office, local police, are not. Cities, for example, are required to provide for the public peace, health, and safety of persons and property, but the law does not require a specific method of providing for these things. Most cities organize a police department to provide for the peace and safety of their residents, but they could instead choose to contract with the county sheriff or another local unit’s police department.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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