Sheriff's Office History

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The first sheriff in America is believed to be Captain William Stone, appointed in 1634 for the Shire of Northampton in the colony of Virginia. The first elected sheriff was William Waters in 1652 in the same shire (shire was used in many of the colonies before the word county replaced it.)

Most would probably believe that the office of Sheriff is quintessentially American.  In fact, it is wholly British in origin, as is the office of Coroner.

While the origins of the sheriff date back more than 1000 years, the history of the American sheriff began in Virginia in 1634 when British soldiers were replaced by a civil government.

As royal property holdings were divided into manageable administrative units called “shires”, Saxon kings appointed “reeves” or guardians to protect their interests.  Throughout the medieval period, shire-reeves, or sheriff’s as they would come to be known, had great and terrible authority.

As the King’s representatives, they had powers of arrest, could raise armies, collect taxes and fines and deal with traitors.  Naturally, this unbridled authority led to great opportunities for extortion and corruption.

The office of the Royal Sheriff was reformed, in a sense, but remained critically important to the Crown for hundreds of years.  In fact, of the 63 clauses of the Magna Carta, 27 are directly concerned with the sheriff and his office.

One of the reforms included the appointment of “Crowners” in each county to, amongst other duties, provide a system of oversight for the corrupt and greedy sheriffs.

The coroner, as we now know the position today, dates back to September 1194, during the reign of Richard the Lionheart.  Among other administrative duties, the Royal Coroner was to respond to the scene of sudden deaths.  Not to determine a cause or provide for the security of the remains, but to assure those who discovered the body or who were otherwise involved, reacted in compliance with the King’s convoluted requirements in such an event.  If not, penalties were assessed and fines collected.  It cost a lot of money to maintain a monarchy.

In fact, there simply is nowhere on earth that today enjoys the protection of a “high sheriff” or coroner that once wasn’t under British rule, including the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Kenya, and Hong Kong.

Today, the obligations and expectations of the Merced County Sheriff/Coroner are well defined by California law. Included in his responsibilities today is the duty to maintain jail facilities, preserve peace, make arrests, prevent and suppress affrays, breaches of the peace, riots, and insurrections.  Additionally, the Sheriff is compelled to investigate public offenses and search for missing persons.  In his role as Coroner, he protects the interests of the deceased and has considerable authority to investigate sudden or suspicious deaths.

The role of the Sheriff has undergone considerable change in the last 1000 years.  However, New Mexico State University Professor Edward A. Farris perhaps summed it up best when he wrote: “His (the Sheriff’s) duties and powers may be altered by the existing social and political climate, but his basic responsibility – to protect life and property – has not been diminished.”

History Timeline

1855 – First county seat established at Osborne Ranch and first county officers elected

1856 – Snelling established

1857 – Snelling courthouse and jail open

1872 – Merced established

1872 – Central Pacific Railroad lays track through the east side of Merced County

1872 – County seat moved from Snelling to Merced, Snelling courthouse closed

1872 – Sheriff’s Department established temporarily at the El Capitan Hotel

1873 – Sheriff’s Department established temporarily at the Olcese and Garibaldi Building

1875 – Courthouse at 21st and N Streets opened

1889 – Merced incorporated

1890 – Southern Pacific Railroad lays track through the west side of Merced County

1902 – Sheriff’s Office and jail built adjacent to the courthouse

1915 – Sheriff’s deputy earns $115/month

1937 – First radio receiver installed in sheriff’s cars

1948 – Sheriff’s Parade Posse established

1962 – First canine handler assigned

1968 – New (current) Sheriff’s Office and jail replaces one built-in 1902

1969 – First narcotics task force organized

1974 – First female deputy was sworn in

1974 – First portable transceivers issued to deputies

1974 – First 24 hour patrol begins

1977 – First Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) organized

1977 – Marshal’s Office established

1980 – Hostage negotiators trained and included on SERT team

1982 – SERT reorganized to Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) team

1982 – Pre-employment polygraph examination required for sworn employees

1982 – Los Banos sub-station opened

1983 – Pre-employment psychological screening required for sworn employees

1983 – Office assistance program established

1986 – Assumed dive rescue/recovery from CDF

1989 – 800 Megahertz radio system installed

1990 – Merced County Adult Correctional Facility opened

1991 – Department reorganized; lieutenant and captain rank replaced by commander

1992 – Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system installed

1992 – First auto-loading pistol (Baretta 96F) issued to deputies

1993 – Consolidation with Coroner’s Office

1993 – Correctional Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) established

1994 – First Community Law Enforcement Office (CLEO) opened

1995 – Main  jail remodeled

1996 – North Area Station (Hilmar) opened

2003 – First plane (Cessna U-206) purchased; Aviation Unit created

2003 – Consolidation with Marshal’s Office

2003 – First correctional canine handler assigned

2004 – First mobile data computer (MDC) installed in patrol vehicles

2004 – First motorcycles (Suzuki 400cc dual-sport) purchased

2004 – MCACF renamed John Latorraca Correctional Center

2005 – Rifles (.223 caliber) issued to patrol deputies

2005 – Sheriff’s Office opens in Delhi; North Area Station in Hilmar closes