The Difference Between the Sheriff and City Police

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The sheriff’s job is similar to that of a police chief, and in many counties, the sheriff is the highest ranking law enforcement officer. The sheriff and city police maintain order, enforce laws and protect life and property, but their positions also differ in many respects.

Areas Served

  • A sheriff's department enforces the law within the county in which the sheriff was elected, including the cities, towns and villages that lie within the county. City police serve a smaller area, enforcing the law only within the limits of a city, town or village.

Sheriff’s Duties

  • Patrolling or handling street crime is not a required duty for the sheriff in all counties as it is for the areas served by the city police. However, while some duties performed by the sheriff and the city police overlap, the scope of a sheriff’s duties is broader. In addition to making arrests, executing outstanding warrants, issuing citations and conducting criminal investigations, the sheriff’s department also maintains the county jail, serves as jailer and transports prisoners to and from the jail for court appearances. The sheriff must also provide court security. His courthouse duties include serving subpoenas, summonses and divorce papers; collecting overdue taxes; enforcing evictions and repossessing property. In some states, sheriff’s departments provide community services such as teaching D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs and often have such service in common with the police department.

Police Duties

  • City police look after public safety and provide other public services. They patrol assigned areas to protect lives and property, to prevent criminal activities and to detect crimes in progress. City police respond to calls only within their jurisdiction, give first aid, perform traffic duties and build community relations. Some police officers choose to specialize and work on riot or bomb squads, in Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), as firearms instructors, in fingerprint identification or in special units such as motorcycle, horseback or the canine corps. Community service programs include working with youth groups and gangs. More than 16,000 police officers are trained as D.A.R.E. instructors, teaching the program throughout the United States and elsewhere.

Sheriff vs. Police Chief

  • The sheriff is elected to his position. The chief of police is usually appointed by a mayor or city council. The sheriff hires and manages the duties and activities of his deputies. As an administrator, the police chief manages the operations of the city police department, including its budget, and focuses on minimizing crime within his jurisdiction. A police supervisor usually assigns duties to police officers.

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