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Sheriff v. Police?

Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department – San Jose, California

The vast majority of people don’t have any dealings with law enforcement at all, aside from the occasional traffic ticket. To them, the term “police officer” refers to any uniformed local-level law enforcement officer. In California, at least, the term “police officer” technically refers only to those officers employed by the city, usually by a police department run by the city. Another uniformed local law enforcement officer in the US that you might encounter is a deputy sheriff. There are a number of differences between a deputy sheriff and a police officer.

  • Deputy sheriffs work for the county. Police officers work for a city. If a crime occurs in a city, it falls to the police to take care of it. If a crime occurs in a county, but outside of a city that has its own police department, it falls to the sheriff’s department of that county to handle it. The sheriffs department will generally work pretty closely with the police departments of the cities in that county so this distinction may not be that big in practice.
  • In California, the sheriffs department in a county is in charge of running the county jail as well as security at the county’s state courts.
  • In California, the sheriffs department is also the one who is involved in the legal process of the courts. This includes serving legal papers (although this varies from county to county) and carrying out orders of the court, such as seizing property of a debtor or evicting a tenant.

Of course, there are also a lot of similarities between deputy sheriffs and police officers, not the least of which is that they can both investigate criminal activity, arrest suspects, testify in court, etc. Sheriffs departments and police departments often have similar equipment and capabilities as well, such as SWAT teams and police helicopters.

This post is, by no means, a comprehensive list of either the similarities or the differences between deputy sheriffs and police officers or sheriffs departments and police departments. Hopefully, though, this post helps answer a question you might have always wondered about, but never asked.

Until next time…

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Andy Chen

Andy I. Chen is a lawyer licensed to practice law in California and New York. Andy maintains offices in Los Altos, California and Modesto, California. Under the New York Court of Appeals' 2015 decision in Schoenefeld v. State of New York, Andy does not accept cases from those in New York state. He does, however, know many lawyers in New York state and would be happy to make a referral.


  1. The primary difference is that the local PD serve the city where as the Sheriffs serve the unincorporated areas of the county.

  2. What are sheriff’s deputies called? officers? employees? Do they use the same procedures for interviewing, fingerprinting, booking?


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