Why Urban Politics Should Pay Attention to Sheriffs (and Local Law Enforcement)

By Mirya R. Holman (Tulane University )

Sheriff Clarke has resigned his position as sheriff of Milwaukee. Clarke is famous for his wild comments and for his association and support of Trump. Clarke is not the only Trump-supporting sheriff to draw national attention. Joe Arpaio, who is a former sheriff, was pardoned by President Trump. Mixed reactions to this pardon have cast the spotlight on the power that sheriffs and law enforcement leaders have at the local level.

Local governments have a “near monopoly on violence in their jurisdictions,” as Fortner points out in “Straight, no Chaser: Theory, History, and the Muting of the Urban State,” Yet, scholars of urban politics often skip over local police policy as a venue for inquiry. This inattention may relate to the relative insular and independent nature of local law enforcement or to fact that police straddle the line between multiple areas of research, including urban politics, policy, and bureaucracy.

Inattention to the politics of law enforcement may also relate law enforcement’s place outside local political control. Sheriffs are independently elected, which means that other local officials can rarely dictate their behavior. In some states, sheriffs are constitutional officers, meaning that their authority can only be challenged by governors or independent investigators. In other states (such as Indiana, Louisiana, and North Carolina), sheriffs can only be arrested by local coroners. As a result, sheriffs have independent authority with few checks by other local leaders.

Even appointed police chiefs often rebel against the desires of mayors and city councils. For example, in Baton Rouge, LA, the Police Chief repeated refused to fire the officer involved in the Alton Sterling shooting. Thus, while policing is largely locally controlled, who controls it is a question left unasked and unanswered by many key urban theories. It isn’t just local dictates: from civil rights to gun control, local law enforcement has a history of refusing to enforce federal and state laws.

My research with Emily Farris on sheriffs suggest that local law enforcement officers and leaders are key local policymakers. For example, we show that sheriffs who personally hold negative attitudes about immigrants are more likely to check immigration status. Along these same lines, we also find that sheriffs who believe in rape and domestic violence myths are less likely to provide services to domestic violence victims. There is a lot of room in urban politics scholarship to understand how and why local law enforcement choose some policies – and not others.

Connecting current decisions to moments in political development (such as the social context of the 1960s and 1970s) shows the need to understand local contexts. As is the need to understand how local law enforcement are shaped by state and national events and trends. Immigration has (rightly) received a lot of attention, in terms of local law enforcement, but the role of police in broken windows policies, public health care, maintaining social order, and a multitude of every day interactions all shape how people engage with their local governments.

Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, will appoint Sheriff Clarke’s replacement. This replacement will then go on to face reelection from the voters in Milwaukee. This is how Clarke became sheriff – an initial appointment, from which he was reelected four times. Despite Clarke’s association with Trump, he repeatedly ran (and won) on the Democratic ticket. In 2014, Clarke narrowly won his primary race in an election that focused on gun control and drew national attention and money. But we know very little about how people vote in sheriffs races, the role of partisanship and incumbency in their reelections, or how political factors shape views of local police chiefs. His resignation rightly draws our attention to how individuals can shape law enforcement policy, trust in government, and the fabric of local places.

Author Biography

Mirya R. Holman is an associate professor of political science at Tulane University. She has published widely on women and politics and urban politics, including Women in Politics in the American City (Temple University Press). Her current research agenda includes research on how urban financial distress shapes local democracy, local climate policy, and the gender balance of local appointed boards and commissions.

Image Source: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons


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