Arlington sheriff launches bid for new term

Arlington Sheriff Beth Arthur speaks with constituents after announcing her re-election bid at the Arlington County Democratic Committee meeting on Feb. 6, 2019.

The 150th anniversary of establishment of the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office will be commemorated on May 7 as part of National Correctional Employees Week.

The Arlington Sheriff’s Office was established at a time when Arlington (then known as Alexandria County) was being separated from the town (now city) of Alexandria and into its own self-governing locality. The same time period marked creation of the county’s three-member, district-based Board of Supervisors, which in 1932 was supplanted by the current five-member, at-large County Board.

For the first 70 years of its existence, the Arlington Sheriff’s Office acted as the chief public-safety agency in the community. That began to change with establishment of the Arlington County Police Department in 1940; today, the sheriff’s office is responsible for administration of the Arlington County Detention Facility, as well as security and administration for local courts, but also retains its law-enforcement powers.

Current Sheriff Beth Arthur has served in office since 2000 and, if she wins re-election in November, soon will tie Howard Fields (1924-44) for the longest continuous service as sheriff in county history. (Fields also served from 1916-20, giving him 24 years of total service.)

The word “sheriff” derives from the Old English “scirgerefa,” or the chief officer of a shire. While the Arabic word “sharif” (a title of honor) is similar, it apparently does not share an etymologic history with the English “sheriff.”

According to the National Sheriffs’ Association, the post of sheriff already was in place in England at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and in the medieval period was one of the most powerful positions in English localities. The fictional Sheriff of Nottingham from the Robin Hood legends may have been based on one or more of the real-life High Sheriffs of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and the Royal Forests, a post that existed from 1068 to 1568.

The first sheriff in English America is believed to have been Capt. William Stone, appointed in 1634 for the Shire of Northampton in Virginia, and the first elected sheriff was William Waters in 1652 in the same shire. (When the Dutch occupied the area of present-day New York City in the early 1620s, their “schout” was a post similar to that of sheriff.)

Today, there are nearly 3,100 sheriffs in localities across the U.S., approximately 98 percent of them elected by the public, according to the National Sheriffs’ Association.

National Correctional Employees Week runs May 5-11; in addition to celebrating the 150th anniversary of the sheriff’s office, Arlington also will pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the current Arlington County Detention Facility.