The Way it Used to Be ~ The Office of Sheriff

Despite the proliferation of law enforcement officers calling themselves sheriffs in fictional Maine villages like Cabot Cove and Storybrooke, sheriff is a county office. It’s also an administrative and public relations job, involving very little direct involvement with criminal investigations. The word comes originally from England, from “shire reeve,” shire being another name for county. Farmington, the county seat of Franklin County, is still referred to as the shiretown.

Franklin County sheriff's house and jail (behind woodpile) in 1915

In really olden days (like the 16th century setting of my Face Down series), sheriffs were appointed by the monarch and were in charge of delivering prisoners from gaol to the assizes. In modern day Maine, sheriff is an elected office. Every four years, candidates run in party primaries and then in the general election in each county. Those of us whose memories stretch back far enough can recall that we always used to know who the next sheriff of Franklin County would to be as soon as the winner of the Republican primary was announced. No Democrats or No-Marks (Independents) had a chance. Since deputies served “at the will and pleasure of the sheriff,” the identity of the next incumbent was rather important to all those who worked for him as deputies.

My husband’s first job in law enforcement was as a part time deputy sheriff way back in 1973.

dispatch center c.1982

His father was already a deputy. Need I say that nepotism was rampant? Deputies did two things. They went out on patrol throughout the county (on their own with no partners) and they were “turnkeys.”

When you entered the tiny sheriff’s office, you faced a desk with a deputy behind it. This desk sat less than three feet inside the door. Behind it was a set of bars to separate this public area from the cells where the prisoners were kept. At night, two deputies were usually on duty, but while one manned the desk and the phone, the other one sometimes napped on a slow night. Prisoners’ files were kept in manila file folders in metal file cabinets. In the case of at least one local family of miscreants, one large folder labeled with their surname served to hold information on all of them.

To the left of the entrance there was a sliding door that separated the jail from the kitchen at the back of the sheriff’s house. It was part of the job description for the sheriff and his family to live in this section of the building. The sheriff’s wife served as matron if there were females incarcerated in the jail and she was expected to cook for all the prisoners. There were a few times when this practice might have been accounted cruel and unusual punishment . . . but I digress.

In time the jail was enlarged. In the new arrangement, someone coming in from outside could no longer see directly into the cell block. And next to the office/dispatch center was an interrogation room with two-way glass. Very up to date!

the cruiser that lived in our driveway lo those many years ago

The “new” jail was built in 1983. It was state of the art for the time. Deputies designated as dispatchers and corrections officers (as opposed to patrol deputies) worked in three-person teams. On each shift, one of the three was (gasp!) female. A police cruiser could now drive into a sally port before unloading a prisoner. This was a big deal. So were all the automated features, controlled from a glassed-in command post.

dispatch center, "new" jail (1983)

When you entered the lobby, you talked to an officer through a speaker. Entering the secure area required a deputy to release two separate locked security doors.

Sad to say, the “new” jail is now in decline. In 2009, it was downgraded to a detention center by the state, holding prisoners for no more than seventy-two hours before transferring them out of the county to a larger facility. Where there were once seventeen corrections officers, three administrative office staff workers, and two cooks, now the entire operation is in danger of being shut down.

"detention center" 2012

As a fiction writer trying to be accurate about how law enforcement works in the state of Maine, I made a conscious decision not to use a real county as the setting for my Liss MacCrimmon mysteries. Carrabassett County is fictional and that gives me considerably more leeway. Truth be told, what I’m really portraying is Franklin County as it was three decades ago, upgraded a bit when it comes to technology. Call it poetic license.

But some things that Hollywood is careless about, I don’t change. In Maine, although many towns and cities have their own police departments, the sheriff’s office runs the county jail (if there is one) and looks after the smaller rural communities, the ones that employ, at most, a town constable. As for major crimes, Portland and Bangor handle their own homicides but the State Police are called in to take charge of murder investigations elsewhere. And the local police in my fictional village of Moosetookalook? I make them up, just as I do the rest of my characters, but they still have to operate within the law.

When it comes right down to it, that’s why my sleuth is not a police officer or a state trooper. She’s an amateur with a nose for trouble. And when the police refuse to tell her how their investigation is going (because in real life they would never involve a civilian), then of course she reacts by trying to find answers on her own.

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2 Responses to The Way it Used to Be ~ The Office of Sheriff

  1. John Clark says:

    Thanks for a very accurate (especially the part about Republican domination way back when) historical description of rural Maine law enforcement. It mirrors my memories of growing up in Knox County during the 1950-1960 era. I have good memories of the late sheriff George Massie whose adoptive parents lived up the road from us and were as nice a couple as ever walked the earth.

  2. Gerry Boyle says:

    Great look at the good old days of Maine law enforcement, when most crime was local and deputies and perpetrators usually had known each other for years. When I was in Waterville in 1980s as a reporter, I often heard the local cops say, “Oh, yeah. I arrested his father.”
    Something to be said for that institutional memory.

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