More on Virginia Sheriffs

Governor Youngkin and incoming officers of Virginia Sheriffs Association  Photo Credit:  Virginia Sheriffs Association

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

This article is a follow-up to Jim McCarthy’s article on sheriffs.  My main purpose is to provide some details and more context to the discussion of the position of sheriff in Virginia.

The sheriff is a “constitutional officer.” Article VII, Section 4 of the state constitution directs that in each county and city there shall be elected, among other positions, a sheriff. The provision goes on to say, “The duties and compensation of such officers shall be prescribed by general law or special act.”

The general powers of a sheriff include law enforcement, jail operation, court security, and service of process. However, state law authorizes cities and towns to establish any departments set out in their charters. As a result, all cities and most towns have charter provisions allowing them to establish a police department. Therefore, sheriffs in cities are limited to administering the jail, providing security in the courts, and serving process papers.

Nine counties also have police departments by virtue of having adopted an optional form of government or being authorized by special law. They are Arlington, Fairfax, Prince William, Henrico, Chesterfield, Prince George, James City, Albemarle, and Roanoke.

All other counties are prohibited by state law from forming police departments unless approved by the voters in a referendum and approved by the General Assembly. In 2000, the statute was further amended to prohibit a county from using public funds to advocate a particular position on the issue. Of course, there is nothing to prevent the Virginia Sheriffs Association from using its funds to oppose the passage of the referendum.

In addition to the referendum requirement, there is a financial obstacle to counties forming police departments. The state reimburses localities the approved costs of the approved number of sheriffs’ deputies. (Localities may supplement the salaries approved by the Compensation Board and may fill more positions than approved by the Board, but with all local funds.) On the other hand, the state does not reimburse localities for the cost of police officers. Counties that have police departments do get state funding through the HB 599 program administered by the Department of Criminal Justice Services, but that funding covers only a portion of the cost of operating a police department. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors recently expressed an interest in establishing a police department. It backed off after a consultant’s report indicated that the cost would be an additional $20-30 million annually.

The other limitation on the jurisdiction of sheriffs is in the area of administering the jail.  If several localities form a regional jail authority, the jail is operated by a professional jail administrator chosen by the authority’s governing body. For the member counties of a regional jail authority, their sheriffs are then limited to law enforcement, court security, and service of process. (Privately, the sheriffs will be happy with such an arrangement. They would much rather be cops than deal with all the problems of running a jail.) For most sheriffs in cities that join a regional jail authority, the sheriffs are then relegated to court security and service of process.

Finally, sheriffs generally do not provide law enforcement services in those towns that have police departments, unless there is some sort of agreement between the town and the sheriff.

Obviously, the complaint by the Loudoun sheriff about having elected board members “none of which have a shred of law enforcement experience — trying to tell a law enforcement agency what to do and how to do it” is nonsense. That is the case in all the cities; it is the case in Henrico where I live, as well as other large counties, and I have not heard any concern voiced by the residents of Henrico about the quality of law enforcement provided by its police department.  And left unsaid by the sheriff, there is no requirement that a sheriff must have a law-enforcement or jail administration background. He or she only has to be elected. The person who ran against the incumbent Loudoun sheriff in 2019 had no law enforcement experience, but still managed to get 45% of the vote. And even if a winning candidate has law-enforcement experience, being elected is no guarantee that he or she is the best person for the job.

Like any elected official, sheriffs are accountable only to voters. They can hire and fire anyone they wish. After a contested election, it is common for the winning candidate to fire any deputies who supported his or her opponent. On the other hand, winners can stock the payroll with relatives and fire anyone who talks to the press about it, as a former City of Richmond sheriff did.

Sheriffs have long exercised political clout in the General Assembly. There are probably two primary reasons for their being able to exercise a lot of influence. In rural counties, especially, they have a political constituency that they can help “deliver” to members of the General Assembly who represent multiple counties and cities. Second, they have the cachet of law and order. John Jones, who has been executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs Association for 45 years, is a fixture in the halls of the Capitol and the General Assembly building. Before the legislature tightened up on gifts and trips for legislators, the Sheriffs Association was well known for taking favored legislators on hunting trips to places such as the Canadian wilderness. It is not often that they do not get want they ask for from the legislators. For example, the 2020 legislation authorizing localities to establish law-enforcement civilian oversight bodies exempted sheriffs’ departments from such reviews.

Governor Youngkin recently attended the annual meeting of the Virginia Sheriffs Association and swore in the incoming president of the organization. I would be surprised if he attends the annual meetings of the other constitutional officers, the Virginia Municipal League, or the Virginia Association of Counties, later this year. The web site of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police did not mention any appearance of the Governor at the installation of its new officers earlier this month.

Generally, sheriffs get along well with their boards of supervisors or city councils. However, because they are independent, sheriffs can sometimes be a thorn in the sides of the governing bodies. The city of Portsmouth has had especially rocky relations with its sheriff  Former sheriff Bill Watson was often in the news. He denied any wrongdoing in having inmates construct a garage at his house (he claimed that he paid them $10 an hour out of his own funds) or to set up tents and chairs at a political fundraising event (he said he did not know the event was a political one.) Perhaps in retaliation for a cut in his budget by city council, he attempted to pull over the mayor for driving with an expired inspection sticker. When the mayor would not stop for his political rival, the sheriff called for backup, and eventually charged the mayor with attempting to elude police, a felony. A judge dismissed the charges.

In an unusual arrangement, the member jurisdictions of the Hampton Roads Regional Jail Authority also maintain their local jails to serve as police lockups and overflow capacity. The Portsmouth jail occupies prime waterfront property that the city has coveted for economic development. Both Watson and his successor have fought city attempts to close the city jail. Instead of transferring Portsmouth jail inmates to the regional jail beds that the city is contracted to pay for whether or not they use them, the sheriffs have chosen to retain most of the city inmates in the city jail. To give up operating the city jail would mean relegating their offices to court security and service of process and giving up a lot of patronage jobs they have to dispense.

Watson offered to give up the jail if the city would build a new jail on another location. Recently, the city condemned the jail due to health and safety reasons. In turn, Michael Moore, Watson’s successor, sued the city for failing to keep the jail up to standards and explaining that the regional jail is unsafe for inmates. (On this latter issue, he has a valid point. The regional jail is notorious for the number of inmates who die there, but that is another story.)

On the other side of the state, the Shenandoah County sheriff recently got into a public squabble with the Board of Supervisors over how to pay for improvements to his agency headquarters that were halfway complete at the time.

My Soapbox

Law enforcement and public safety are among the basic functions of local government. Therefore, those in charge of these functions should be held accountable to either the local chief administrator (county, city, or town manager) or the local governing body (board of supervisors or council).

As recently as fifty years ago, this might not have been practicable in many Virginia localities. Many counties did not have professional managers and membership on boards of supervisors and some city and town councils was much more of a part-time activity than it is now. Today is much different. All counties have full-time, professional managers. Membership on the governing bodies is much more active. Issues are more complicated.

Ideally, the position of an elected sheriff would be abolished. Each county would have a police department. The jails would be operated by a professional jail administrator hired either by the local government or the governing body of a regional jail. The provision of court security and service would be the responsibility of either the chief judge of the circuit court or the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court. (Does it make sense for voters to select a jail operator, court bailiffs, or service providers?)

Such an arrangement would require a constitutional amendment. Realistically, that is not going to happen anytime soon.

As an alternative, counties should be given the option to establish police departments without having to go through a referendum or to the General Assembly for special authorization. Establishing a police department will inevitably be more expensive than relying on a sheriff to provide law-enforcement services, but a board of supervisors would be able to weigh the projected additional costs against the perceived advantages of having a police department answerable to it.

As a final point, for those who feel that the people should be able to elect their sheriff, keep in mind that running for election costs money. There has been extensive comment on this blog concerning the campaign finance laws in the Commonwealth. Here are two examples of the campaign contributions made to sheriffs in the Richmond area over the past few years.  In 2021, Global Tel-Link was one of the largest contributors to the campaign of the incumbent Richmond sheriff. Global Tel-Link is one of the major contractors for telecom services to jails and prisons. (I do not know if the company has a contract for the Richmond city jail.)

The sheriff also has gotten campaign contributions in recent years from individuals or companies that could potentially do business with the jail, as follows: three bail bonding companies, a pharmacy, a for-profit educational company, a nonprofit substance abuse organization, a temp agency, and management consultants. The Hanover County sheriff has received campaign contributions from a local insurance company, a law firm, a law-enforcement equipment supply company, a local sheet metal company, a nonprofit substance abuse organization, and building supplies companies and contractors.