A police chief and a sheriff seem like similar positions. They both are in charge of a body of law enforcement officers. The differences come in when considering the scope, specific duties and nature of both positions. Both officers are charged with upholding the law, but they go about it in different ways.
A sheriff is elected by the registered voters of his or her county. All residents of all cities and towns in the county get to vote for the sheriff. Police chiefs or commissioners differ in a major way: They are appointed to their position by a mayor or city council. The residents of a city with a police force do not get to choose the leader of that police force. They only choose the sheriff.
Since a sheriff is an elected official, his allegiance is strictly to the electorate. They are the group of people who put him in the job, and come election season, it is they who may select another to replace him. A police chief owes her allegiance not to the citizens she serves but to the mayor of her city and the city council who votes and decides on issues relating to her department. This isn't to say that the chief of police does not serve her community in an important way, but just that her job does not depend on keeping constituents happy.
A police chief is in charge of the police force for a specific city. The chief of police in New York or San Francisco oversees all police-related business strictly within that city. A sheriff oversees an entire county, including all cities within the county. A sheriff can enter any city within her county and make an arrest or cite an offender. A police chief cannot leave his city and maintain this level of authority.
To assist in overseeing an entire county, the sheriff appoints deputies. These deputies are trained officers and are political appointees instead of regular hired help. A police chief hires police officers to assist her in maintaining order within her city. Both police officers and sheriff's deputies are highly trained law enforcement officers. A sheriff also manages all county jails, is in charge of courthouse security and is responsible for the transfer of all county-related civil papers. A police chief manages just his police department. This is also an important position as the hiring of officers, managing the department budget, allocating officers and reporting to the mayor and city council are all part of a chief's duties.
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