What Is the Difference Between a Police Officer & a Sheriff?

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Police officers and sheriffs are both peace officers who risk their lives for the safety and security of their communities. The role each one plays generally comes down to structure of their job – a sheriff is usually an elected county official, while a city police officer is a city employee. Although police officers and sheriffs have similar duties, some major differences set them apart.

1 Sheriff

Sheriffs manage law enforcement on a county level, and almost all sheriffs are elected officials. Sheriffs perform job duties similar to a police chief, often in charge of the sheriff's department, deputies and the county jail. Sheriffs normally have jurisdiction over areas in their county that may or may not fall under municipal jurisdiction. Depending on state law, sheriffs – often through their deputies – may administer warrants, investigate complaints and suspected criminals, supervise inmates, post eviction notices and collect delinquent taxes from individuals. Qualifications to be sheriff are set by state law. While sheriffs typically have years of service as a deputy or police officer, a law enforcement background may not be mandatory.

2 Police Officer

Police officers work in general law enforcement and are usually employed by a city's or town's police department, although they also can work for a federal or state entity. Police officers spend the majority of their time responding to calls, doing paperwork and investigating crimes and accidents. Police officers at the state level can include state troopers who enforce motor vehicle laws on highways and interstates. A state police officer may aid smaller law enforcement agencies in rural areas in case of an emergency or criminal investigation. Most police officers are uniformed officers, while others work as investigators, officers of the court or administrative officers. Individuals wishing to become police officers must have at least a high school degree.

3 Work Environment

The work environment for both police officers and sheriffs can be very dangerous – the risk of work-related injuries is very high. Both peace officers can expect to work approximately 40 hours per week, and overtime is standard for both. Junior police officers can expect to work nights, weekends and holiday shifts. Sheriffs may work in a courthouse or jail; most police officers work in the field.

4 Advancement

Sheriffs may be elected after holding deputy or police officer positions for several years, although this may not be necessary. Police officers must wait for a promotion for as long as three years during a preliminary probationary period. A police officer working for a larger department may be able to reach the status of detective, and some are able to work in specialized areas, such as working with inmates and juvenile delinquents.

Megan Kelly started writing professionally in 2007 when she was published in the anthology, "Lit Kids: Mama Bird and the Electric Rabbit" through Mill City Press. She is also a submissions reviewer and grant writer for "Spout Press," an independent magazine in Minneapolis. Kelly is pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Minnesota.