Is it time to stop electing sheriffs?

The past couple of weeks I’ve been listening to the exceptional podcast “In the Dark” produced by Minnesota-based American Public Media.

The topic of the podcast’s first season, first released in 2016, is the Jacob Wetterling case, but toward the end of the series is an episode dealing with a problem I hadn’t really thought of as a problem before.

Is it really a good idea to be electing county sheriffs?

The podcast was focused on poor performance and a lack of accountability in the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department in Minnesota, which badly botched the Wetterling case, but it’s clear from recent news reports that we have our own problems with sheriffs here in North Dakota.

Just this month a deputy in the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department was arrested for charges related to the theft of a pound of methamphetamine, among other items.

Last year Johnny Zip Lawson, then the Sheriff of Wells County, abruptly resigned his office. Shortly after all of his deputies resigned leaving the county without a law enforcement presence. Lawson was ultimately charged with two felonies — conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine and bribery — but agreed to reduced charges in February as a part of a plea deal that involves him testifying against the man who allegedly provided him with the drugs.

Meanwhile in McKenzie County, current sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger survived an effort to remove him from office after he was accused of misappropriating public property by using a county credit card for personal purchases at a conference in Las Vegas.

The removal process was initiated by Governor Jack Dalrymple, but the job was goofed. Schwartzenberger was reinstated by Governor Doug Burgum and the criminal charges against him were dropped after the judge ruled that the state couldn’t proceed because those same charges had been part of the failed removal effort.

Upon Schwarzenberger’s reinstatement seven of his deputies quit their jobs. Despite that the sheriff is running for re-election this year.

Which brings me back to the point of this column. Is it really a good idea to elect county sheriffs?

I suspect the knee-jerk reaction from many of you reading this will be to argue that elections mean accountability.

That’s true to a point, but elected officials also enjoy a great deal of protection outside of the election process.

They can’t simply be fired. Is that what we want for law enforcement? I’m not so sure.

Our police chiefs are not elected. They serve at the pleasure of municipal leaders. The head of the state patrol here in North Dakota serves at the pleasure of the governor.

Our military leaders also aren’t elected. They serve at the pleasure of civilian leadership.

But we elect sheriffs, affording them a degree of protection from accountability that other law enforcement and military leaders don’t get. As we can see in the Schwartzenberger case in particular, that can be problematic.

North Dakotans like electing people. Americans in general love democracy. But it doesn’t make sense for some jobs to be elected positions.

The job of county sheriff may be one of them.

Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Follow him on Twitter at @RobPort


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