Following the killings of Taylor and George Floyd, people across the country have renewed calls to abolish and divest the police. The City of Compton now has the opportunity to reject conventional community safety standards, which involve spending millions of dollars in officers to patrol their neighborhoods. Compton can instead use that funding and apply it to community-based initiatives that serve as alternatives to law enforcement and policing, such as socialized health care, housing, and restorative justice initiatives.
It is worth focusing on the kind of malicious behavior the sheriff’s departments, in particular, are accused of being involved in. under investigation for years – yet the same problems have been problems for decades. Allegations of violence also persist in departments across the country.
Unlike the heads of municipal police departments, sheriffs are usually elected into office. Once there, there is generally little oversight of how they run the prisons and their department. A sheriff’s jurisdiction varies from state to state, but often their role includes patrolling and working in county jails and courts.
In county jails, reports of abuse and neglect by lawmakers are endemic. In August, a North Carolina sheriff apologized to the family of John Neville, a black man who died while being held by detention officers in jail. In the last moments of his life, Neville can be heard saying that he couldn’t breathe. In Georgia, a video shows an MP repeatedly beating and subsequently arresting Roderick Walker, a black man, 26, during a traffic stop. (The BBC reported that the MP was fired for “excessive use of force”.)
Southern police departments are often said to have emerged from southern slave patrols. The sheriffs’ origin story is equally enlightening. In England, where popular understanding of the institution originated, their role was to collect taxes for the king, investigate criminal charges in their jurisdiction and, among other duties, carry out death sentences. In the United States, sheriffs often serve as executors of home evictions. In January, Moms 4 Housing, an advocacy group of homeless and marginalized mothers in Oakland, was forcibly evicted from the home it had occupied. The sheriffs showed militarized strength, presenting themselves for eviction with tanks and AR-15s to drive out the women occupying the house.
When it comes to protecting property interests, sheriffs have been tasked with enforcing colonial colonialism for decades. When the English colonists came to occupy what is now known as Virginia, the position of “sheriff” came to America. As the colonization continued westward, the role of the sheriff arrived. And probably, in some parts of the country, the archetype of the sheriff as a lone, armed lawman hasn’t strayed too far from Old West times. Joe Arpaio, a former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, is a typical example. Arpaio was convicted and subsequently pardoned by the current president for ignoring a court order to stop the racial profiling of immigrants and detain them on suspicion of being undocumented. During his time as sheriff, he maintained a prison called “Tent City,” which reportedly had a separate section for undocumented immigrants. For decades, most Latinx inmates worked on chain gangs (a long-abandoned practice in much of the United States) and, over the course of their sentences, had to endure the harsh conditions of the Arizona desert, according to The Guardian and other outlets.