Cover Story: Electing a sheriff

By Jeff Atkinson - bio | email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - County Commissioners in Lincoln county voting Wednesday night to take legal action if Sheriff Tim Daughtery refuses to resign.  Daughtery is charged with two counts of obstruction of justice.  With Daughtery facing criminal charges, some are asking do we really need to elect a sheriff?  Critics argue that basically anybody could be put in office.  PrimeTime's Jeff Atkinson explores the debate in our Cover Story.

It's a good question. we don't elect a police chief do we.. why do we still elect a sheriff?

And in this day and age when the job of sheriff has grown more complex.. we're asking has it come time to change the law?

When voters go to the polls and choose their elected leaders.. some are surprised that the sheriff is still on the ballot.

Sheriff as an elected position goes back to pre-Colonial days.. a carry over from England in fact.

In America, the office of sheriff was established as an independent agency.. elected by the people.  It was reasoned that an elected sheriff would be more responsive and accountable to the citizens than a sheriff who was appointed.

And try to do anything to the office..

"As a practical matter.. not going to happen."

He would know... Parks Helms two years ago while on the Mecklenburg county commission floated a trial balloon.. an idea to strip the sheriff of some of his duties.

Dozens of deputies filled the commission chambers voicing displeasure over just the idea of appointing an adminstrator to oversee the Mecklenburg jail.  The idea went nowhere.

Helms showed us-- "Sheriff as an elected leader" is in the North Carolina Constitution.

Trying to change it would be a tall order.. but nonetheless could be done.  But would it?

Like many groups they have a powerful lobby in Raleigh, he says. "They're not going to let anything happen that diminshes their power and their influence in the state."

There are only two states in the country.. Rhode Island and Hawaii.. where the sheriff is not elected by the voters.

In one state-- Alaska.. the office of sheriff doesn't even exist.

As a state North Carolina's generally been spared the embarassment of sheriffs being carted off to jail.. there are a few exceptions.

So the age-old practice of electing a county's top cop hasn't risen to a level of concern.

The important job of running the jail.. protecting the courts.. and investigating crimes as the sheriff does in many counties.. will likely always stay in the hands of an elected leader.

"I don't think the time has yet come when we will be able to move the sheriff from an elected position to an appointed position."

And if we stopped electing a sheriff.. how would you go about appointing a sheriff.. and who would make the appointment?

Even then you're not guaranteed the office would be free of corruption.

This subject has come up before?  The legislature has looked at moves to appoint judges and Supreme Court justices.. yes, we elect them as well.

But that's never gone anywhere either.