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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 US Marshal, like Marshal Dillon of Gunsmoke,) 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 from state to state.

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, 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.

Fictional Sheriffs

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