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The Sheriff

In the United States, a sheriff is generally the chief law enforcement officer for a county or parish. It is usually an elected position, though in emergencies a sheriff may be appointed by county officials.

The name is derived from the British "shire reeve", corrupted to "sheriff" over time. The position had similar duties and powers, but was appointed by the Crown. Perhaps the most famous Sheriff of this type is he of Nottingham.

In a Western, the Sheriff is generally the closest and main law enforcer. Their function in a story is very flexible, ranging from The Hero through Reasonable Authority Figure and Obstructive Bureaucrat to Corrupt Hick. It's a very lucrative and powerful (within the county) position, but also comes with great danger and responsibility.

In most works of fiction, the sheriff wears a distinct badge, usually star-shaped. If he is ever disgraced or otherwise found to be morally unworthy of his title, the customary action is for The Hero to shoot a hole through this badge, symbolic of the title being stripped.

In some Westerns, "Sheriff" is conflated with "Town Marshal" (not to be confused with the U.S. Marshal, like Marshal Dillon), a more localized version. If the plotline is about cleaning up one lawless town, with no reference to the rest of the county, you may be seeing this in action.

The Sheriff often handles minor offenses himself, locking up drunks and rowdies for the night. But serious crimes must be held over until the Circuit Judge arrives. He's usually assisted by at least one Deputy Sheriff (often a Clueless Deputy), whom he appoints.

In westerns, this character often overlaps with The Gunslinger, though this is not always the case. A Real Life example of a non-gunfighter sheriff was Bat Masterson, who preferred the "big stick" approach.

Sheriffs are usually most active in areas that cannot support their own police force so expect to see them in rural areas or Small Towns.

Stock plot — The Gunslinger (sometimes, the Young Gun, but if so he'll have his more experienced advisor with him) comes into town, and is immediately appointed The Sheriff by the townspeople. This invariably means there's a villain (an Outlaw or a old-west-style Corrupt Corporate Executive) in town who has run off or killed the old sheriff and is terrorizing the townspeople, stealing cattle, cheating at poker, and probably not paying his brothel bill. It's up to the new guy to avoid getting killed, beat the villain, then move on. Also see The Drifter for more detail on this.

In the modern day, sheriffs tend to use their guns a lot less, though they remain important to law enforcement, particularly in rural areas. In metropolitan counties, the sheriff's department generally runs the jail and does process serving, among other duties. As with everything else in America, this varies not only from state to state, but also from town to town. Sheriffs serving large polities tend to be managers rather than active officers, setting law enforcement policy and hiring, firing, and disciplining deputies. In smaller locales, with smaller budgets, the sheriff will have fewer deputies, possibly none, and will play a larger role in active policing. Regardless, as sheriffs are usually elected officials, they're usually politicians, with all the good and bad that entails.

When the role of the sheriff becomes too big for one man to handle, then he deputizes someone else to handle those duties for him. Thus officers working for the sheriff's office are known as deputies. Thus one of the stock tropes of the western is the county jail with its one cell, a desk for the sheriff and, across the room, a smaller desk for his deputy.

Famous Real Life Sheriffs

  • Buford Pusser, as fictionalized in Walking Tall.
  • Bat Masterson
  • Wyatt Earp (Town Marshal variety, notable in the fact that his famous shoot out involved a conflict between the town marshals and the county sheriffs).
    • Even more noteworthy in that the large majority of his career was spent arresting criminals, rather than killing them. In fact, if the stories are to be believed, until the series of events that eventually led to the showdown at the OK Corral, Earp had never killed a criminal in his entire career.
      • His preferred method of dealing with miscreants was pistol-whipping.
      • Or pulling on their ear.
  • Pat Garrett, the man who shot Billy The Kid (and wrote an awful book about it).
  • Bill Tilghman - the last of the old Western sheriffs. Rode with Masterson and Earp, killed in the line of duty at age 70.
  • David Reichert (currently US congressman from Washington State, Reichert is best known for his pursuit and capture of the Green River Killer, and is still known in his local area simply as "The Sheriff")
  • Johnny Behan, county sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona (including the town of Tombstone) during the Gunfight at the OK Corral. He was a character in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Spectre of the Gun", which featured a recreation of the gunfight.
  • Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Makes his prisoners wear pink underwear, sleep in tents outdoors in the middle of summer (when temperatures routinely top 110F), and eat spoiled bologna sandwiches, among other things. Viewed as either a Cowboy Cop or a Corrupt Hick depending on how you feel about prisoner's rights.
    • Lending further weight to the latter characterization, Arpaio also has a well-documented history of using his deputies to harass and intimidate his political opponents and media critics.
    • His alleged mistreatment of racial minorities, particularly Latinos, has also been a subject of controversy. This has resulted in investigations by the federal government and has resulted in his office being forbidden to detain suspected illegal immigrants.
    • His birther allegations towards President Barack Obama have been widely criticised.
  • Bob Vogel of Volusia County, Florida. 60 Minutes profiles Vogel's so-called "drug enforcement program" in which Vogel's men would stop suspicious travelers on I-95 and confiscate any large amounts of cash they might have on the basis of their being "suspected drug dealers" under authority of the state's RICO statutes. These "suspected drug dealers" included a 90+ year old great-grandmother who hadn't trusted banks since the Great Depression and thus kept her money on her at all times, a car dealer on his way to a "cash-only" auto auction, the recent winner of a game show who had taken his winnings in cash so he could show his family what "a hundred thousand dollars looked like", and a woman on her way to buy supplies after a hurricane.
  • Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida. When he found out that a man in Colorado was selling a book titled The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, he had an undercover detective buy a copy, then sent two officers over 1,800 miles to arrest the author for distribution of obscenity. Once, when asked why his men shot 110 rounds at one suspect, hitting him 68 times, Judd replied, "Because that's all the bullets we had."

Fictional Sheriffs

  • Andy Taylor of The Andy Griffith Show.
  • Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard is the Corrupt Hick version.
    • Also on the show was Sheriff Little of Chickasaw County, a Scary Black Man version.
  • Sheriff Buford T. Justice, Jackie Gleason's character in the Smokey and the Bandit films, is another Corrupt Hick example.
  • Sheriff Lucas Buck from American Gothic who was apparently Satan.
  • Sheriff Elroy P. Lobo from B.J. and the Bear and its spinoff, The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, is a (mild) Corrupt Hick version.
  • In the Louis L'Amour novel The Daybreakers, Orrin Sackett parlays his successful term as a town marshal for Mora, New Mexico to run for county sheriff. His brother Tyrel's turn as town marshal for a small mining town doesn't go as well, though he makes a fine deputy sheriff later.
  • Paladin of Have Gun Will Travel often interacts with sheriffs in the course of his jobs. In one episode of the Radio Drama, Paladin helps out a "sheriff" (town marshal version) who's just returned from an Eastern education and is trying to enforce the Philadelphia city ordinances on a small cow town.
  • Rio Lobo (1970) - Sheriff "Blue Tom" Hendricks (Corrupt Hick version)
  • El Dorado (1966) - Sheriff J.P. Harrah (played by Robert Mitchum)
  • Rio Bravo (1959) - Sheriff John T. Chance (played by John Wayne)
  • The Big Stampede (1932) - Deputy Sheriff John Steele (also played by Wayne)
  • Parodied by Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles. He was actually appointed by the state government, rather than elected by the town, mainly because the previous sheriff had been murdered and nobody in Rock Ridge wanted to be the replacement.
  • Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the James Bond films Live and Let Die and The Man with the Golden Gun is definitely a 'hick' type, though not particularly corrupt.
  • Support Your Local Sheriff - starring James Garner as Jason McCullough
  • Jesse Custer becomes Sheriff of Salvation in Preacher.
  • Magilla Gorilla had secondary cartoons starring Sheriff (Bing! Bing! BING!) Ricochet Rabbit.
  • Quick Draw McGraw is a sheriff as well.
  • An episode of The Flintstones had Fred end up as Sheriff with the bad guys about to ride into town.
  • The Love Interest in Practical Magic was a town marshal, and his devotion to the law turned out to be his own personal Applied Phlebotinum.
  • As Neptune, California, in Veronica Mars is an unincorporated town, there is a Sheriff's Department for the county, not a police force. Keith Mars is the ex-sheriff, ousted for political reasons.
    • And he was replaced by Sheriff Lamb, who was pretty much just short of being a full-on manifestation of Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop. He's never shown taking bribes, but when a high school student reports that she's been raped, he laughs her out of his office.
  • Sheriff Jack Carter of Eureka, though his job isn't so much to clean up the titular town, as to keep its Mad Scientist residents from turning it into a wasteland in the first place. This is a bit of Hollywood Law as Carter was appointed the Sheriff of Eureka by the federal government rather than elected by local residents, as is normal in the United States.
  • Can't forget Little Bill from Unforgiven.
  • Lucas Simms of Fallout 3 is the self-appointed sheriff of Megaton, and considered to be a bit of a Bunny-Ears Lawyer by its citizens because of the whole "cowboy getup".
    • From the first game, we have Sheriff Killian of Junktown.
    • Fallout 2 gives us Marcus of Broken Hills, Marion of Redding, and Dumont of the NCR.
    • In Fallout: New Vegas you can either appoint a former Cowboy Cop or reprogram a robot as the sheriff of Primm. That or have the NCR take the town under their wing.
  • Twin Peaks included two sheriffs, one in the series and one in The Movie, Fire Walk with Me. The series had Twin Peaks' Reasonable Authority Figure Sheriff Harry S. Truman, while the movie had Deer Meadow's Corrupt Hick Sheriff Cable.
  • Sheriff Hague from Planet Terror, played by the ever amazing Michael Biehn.
  • Robert McCloskey's children's books Homer Price and Centerburg Tales feature a Spoonerism-prone character who not only is The Sheriff, but is only known as The Sheriff.
  • Hoot Kloot, a cartoon series produced by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises.
  • Sheriff Teasle from First Blood, the prototypical "corrupt hick" type who sets off the events of the film by arresting Rambo without proper cause.
  • Sheriff Ned is a Badass Normal exchange law enforcement officer from Texas in the web-based Harry Potter Comics.
  • Rango
  • Woody from Toy Story.
  • Sheriff the police car from Cars.
  • Sheriff McClelland, who heads the zombie-hunting posse in Night of the Living Dead.
  • Sheriff Baker from The Stand.
  • Sheriff Valenti from Roswell
  • Sheriff Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead and its TV adaptation. However, since society has pretty much collapsed by the start of both series, being a sheriff basically means Rick has a cool costume and a Nice Hat. On the other hand, before the end he was essentially an ordinary cop with a fancy title, whereas his lawbringing behaviour post-outbreak is much more in keeping with the Western stereotype.
  • Once Upon a Time has first Graham and then Emma, who surprisingly wins the election after Graham's death even though Regina put up her own puppet candidate.
  • Tim Horn (technically a town marshal) in Bad Day at Black Rock. He is also The Alcoholic and a prime example of Police Are Useless.
  • Pete Anderson in Day of the Wolves. At least till he is ordered to Turn in Your Badge.
  • Sheriff Terribull from Wild West COW Boys Of Moo Mesa is a Corrupt Hick variation.
  • Jetstream, Key West, Florida's official superhero from the Global Guardians PBEM Universe, is actually a Monroe County, Florida deputy Sheriff and thus has official police powers while acting as a crimefighter.
  • Stiles' dad, Sheriff Stilinski, on Teen Wolf.
  • Sid Hatfield from the film Matewan (and supposedly in real life) was a Badass who stood up for the people of his town against a lot of odds.
  • The Lord of the Rings gives us Hobbit Shirriffs. Until Saruman's takeover they didn't really do anything but watch for trespassers since the Hobbits themselves almost never committed crimes and the land was defended by the Rangers.
  • Borderlands 2 has The Sheriff of Lynchwood (Real name: Nisha), who isn't an actual law enforcement officer. She's simply Handsome Jack's girlfriend who was given control of the town as an anniversary gift and a villain with a taste for Western tropes and mass hangings.
  • The Sheriff Of Fractured Jaw has the "unlucky newcomer pressganged into the job" plot foisted on a British Bunny-Ears Lawyer gunsmith, who then has to deal with the rival Cattle Barons warring over the town.
  • One of King Schultz's first actions in Django Unchained is to shoot a town sheriff in cold blood, then calmly inform the Marshal who comes after him that the man was a wanted criminal with a bounty on his head. And then asks to be paid.
  • The Reality On The Norm series. The lawkeeper of Reality-on-the-Norm is a sheriff aptly named, well, The Sheriff. His clothes make him look like someone straight from the Wild West, even though it's not clear which country Reality-on-the-Norm actually lies in.
  • Raylan Givens, the main protagonist of Justified is a US Marshal but he regularly has to interact with the current sheriff of Harlan County. Harlan has had bad luck with sheriffs. The first sheriff we meet, Hunter Mosley, turns out to be working for the Miami cartel and tries to kill Raylan on their orders. His replacement, Tillman Napier, is even more corrupt and easily accepts a Briefcase Full of Money from Detroit mobster Quarles. Napier has the sheriff's election stolen from under him by Boyd Crowder who gets his own candidate, Shelby Parlow, elected to the position. Shelby is actually a good cop who does not want to be in Boyd's pocket but is then revealed to be Drew Thompson who three decades earlier faked his death to get away from the Detroit mob.
  • The original medieval version: Hugh Beringar, Sheriff of Shropshire, in the Brother Cadfael mystery novels.
  • Jody Mills of Supernatural is the local law enforcement in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, who becomes an ally of the Winchesters after her son returns as a zombie.
  • Sheriffs John Langston (John Cleese) and Cobb (Brian Dennehy) in Silverado. Paden eventually becomes one too, after a showdown with Cobb, whom he replaces.
  • Walt Longmire, Sheriff of Absaroka County, Wyoming, and the eponymous hero of Longmire.
  • The Joanna Brady mysteries by J.A. Jance. Joanna is sheriff of Cochise County in Arizona; the jurisdiction happens to include Tombstone.
  • Kirito functioned as this in Sword Art Online. Unofficial, since SAO had no official law enforcement, but when the player whose strength and skill is second only to the GM decides to take down bandits dead or alive, he's earned the right to be called sheriff.
  • Nolan is this in Defiance, though the position is now referred to as "Lawkeeper".
  • In Cactus Canyon, the player is the Sheriff and tries to tame The Wild West town.


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