How to Become a Sheriff: Career Education and Training Information

Learn how to become a sheriff. Research the job duties and education requirements, and find out how to start a career in the field of local law enforcement.

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Do I Want to Be a Sheriff?

Sheriffs are responsible for county or regional law enforcement. Common job duties include serving court orders, arresting criminals and operating county jails. Most sheriffs also collaborate with other members of law enforcement, including police officers, judges and correctional workers. Stress is inherent in this profession, due to potential danger and injury. Many of these professionals feel great reward, however, from serving the public and helping to make their counties safe.

Job Requirements

Desired or required qualifications can include prior law enforcement experience and an associate's degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. Qualifications for this position vary by county and state. Many jurisdictions require sheriff candidates to be local residents who're over the age of 21. To then become a sheriff, one must usually be elected. Licensure or certification may be required, according to the state's guidelines. The following table displays some of the most common requirements:

Common Requirements
Degree Level An associate degree is required in some states*
Degree Field Criminal justice, law enforcement**
Licensure or Certification Police officer licensure or certification (as required by state law)*
Experience 1-5 years experience as a police officer*
Key Skills Problem-solving abilities, strong organizational and communication skills, empathy and an understanding of human behavior**
Computer Skills Experience with such databases as the National Crime Information Center database and the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System; use of photo imaging software, such as 3-D EyeWitness, and map creation software, such as ESRI ArcView***
Technical Skills Ability to use firearms; a familiarity with police vehicles, surveillance technologies and restraining devices, such as handcuffs***
Additional Requirements U.S. citizenship, physical strength; must also meet age and 1-year residency requirements*

Sources: *State and county government websites, **U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), ***Occupational Information Network.

Step 1: Become a Police Officer

Several jurisdictions require sheriff candidates to be licensed or certified police officers. Qualifications for becoming a police officer generally include a high school diploma and the completion of a police academy training program. In most cases, program applicants will need to pass background checks and physical exams before moving on to study such topics as search and seizure, effective communications, defensive tactics, community policing, report writing and police vehicle operations.

Success Tip:

  • Develop physical strength and endurance. Police academy training includes extensive physical conditioning. Cadets will need to develop the strength and stamina to endure physical activity for extended periods. Individuals interested in becoming police officers might want to consider getting in shape prior to applying to these training programs.

Step 2: Earn an Undergraduate Degree

Some law enforcement agencies require police officers to complete an associate or bachelor's degree program. Sheriffs could also be required to hold a degree. Relevant programs are available in law enforcement or criminal justice. Coursework includes topics in criminal law and procedures, the juvenile justice system, forensics, criminal theory, investigation procedures, basic defense tactics and patrol operations.

Success Tip:

  • Become an intern for the sheriff's department. Undergraduate criminal justice and law enforcement students can get work experience through internship opportunities. Some schools even state that graduates who complete these program components can improve their job prospects.

Step 3: Get Work Experience

To be eligible for sheriff elections, the majority of jurisdictions require candidates to have anywhere from 1-5 years of prior experience in the law enforcement or criminal justice fields. Candidates can fulfill these experience requirements by working on the police force. In some cases, significant experience as a judge will suffice, while other jurisdictions allow candidates to substitute education for up to four years of experience.

Success Tip:

  • Be a project leader. Sheriff positions entail supervisory responsibilities, so job candidates might want to acquire management experience. Consider working as the head officer on an investigation or volunteering to supervise community outreach programs, such as neighborhood watches.

Step 4: Run for Office

Once individuals have met all qualifications, most jurisdictions require them to file paperwork with the county to show they're officially running for the position of sheriff. Candidates must then organize and raise funds for their election campaigns. They will need to follow campaign rules as set by the local authorities as well.

Success Tip:

  • Assemble a campaign committee. Consider hiring a campaign manager to organize and complete various tasks, such as setting up media interviews, writing press releases and raising funds. Campaign managers might also hire other supporters to help complete these tasks.

Step 5: Get Elected

After being elected, most states require newly elected sheriffs to swear an oath of loyalty and agree to a contractual bond. If they fail in their duties, they might be required to pay a monetary penalty in accordance with the agreements listed in the bond. Some agencies also require newly elected sheriffs to complete designated law enforcement training programs. The length of a sheriff's appointment varies by region, but in many locations they remain in office for a term of four years.

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