Sheriffs' Offices Have More Than Doubled in Size Since 1993

For better or worse, the role of U.S. sheriffs' offices has been expanding and getting more complex.


Peggy Peattie/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The number of people employed full-time at U.S. sheriffs' offices jumped 57 percent from 1993 through 2013, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

By 2014, some 352,000 people across the country worked full-time for a sheriff's office, including 163,000 civilian staffers and 189,000 sworn officers (aka the ones who can arrest you). So, what accounts for this rising tide of sheriffs' office staff? 

In the U.S., sheriffs' offices typically operate at the county level, are directed by an elected county sheriff, and run some sort of local jail. But that's about where the similarities between them end. Between states and between counties within them, sheriffs' department duties and roles vary widely. Some are largely administrative, serving warrants and other court papers. Some are an area's only police force. In places prone to natural disasters, sheriffs' offices wind up doing a lot of emergency management. In counties containing big cities, they wind up as a liaison to federal law-enforcement on big drug, gang, or—more recently—prostitution busts. 

Over the past two decades, more of the growth at sheriffs' offices comes from an increase in full-time civilian employees, the BJS reported. While the number of sworn agents jumped just 21 percent from 1993 through 2013, the ranks of civilian staff swelled by 138 percent. On the civilian side, that's a net gain of 94,500 new full-time sheriff's office employees, suggesting whole new levels of county-government bloat and bureaucracy. 

The 3,100 new sworn sheriff's officers, however, shouldn't be overlooked—especially considering more recent hiring trajectories. From 2007 through 2013, civilian personnel at sheriff's offices actually decreased by six percent, losing 11,100 employees. During this same time period, the number of full-time sworn officers grew 10 percent and the number of part-time sworn officers also increased, by 40 percent. 

Why the need for so much more manpower? BJS doesn't speculate, and getting to the root of that question properly is the subject for a much longer article. But one short answer is that the role of county sheriffs' offices has been expanding and getting more complex. 

Perhaps because they're led by elected officials, sheriff's offices are prone to the same sort of empire-building behavior typical of federal departments and agencies. Perusing recent news from and about U.S. sheriffs' offices, you can see them getting more involved in both community policing and federal law-enforcement operations, in addition to just expanding generally. For instance, in California, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recently got a Mental Evaluation Bureau, the Orange County Sheriff's Office is taking on a more prominent role in policing Disney World, and up the coast in San Luis Obispo County, two deputies are being added this summer to the Sheriff's Gang Task Force.

Want a few more examples? 

The BJS report also contained some interesting demographic tidbits for U.S. sheriffs' officers. For the first time, in 2013, sheriff's offices employed more full-time Hispanic officers than black officers. Overall, 78 percent of sworn officers were white, 11 percent were Hispanic, and 9 percent were black.

The number of non-white officers did increase somewhat between 1993 and 2013, from 17 percent of the total force to 22 percent. The number of female officers has also been growing, from 20,800 in 2007 to 26,100 in 2013. Overall, 86 percent of sworn sheriff's officers were men and 14 percent were women.