Constitution lays out authority, not numbers

Sheriff's offices and police departments generally share authority in cities and towns in Washington.


Establishment of law enforcement agencies in counties and cities throughout Washington is rooted in the state’s Constitution and subsequent legislative enactments.

The Constitution requires the Legislature to provide for the election of sheriffs, and grants cities and towns authority to make and enforce laws within their jurisdictional limits.

Revised Code of Washington 36.28.010 specifically designates the sheriff — elected on a partisan ballot to serve a four-year term — as “the chief executive officer and conservator of the peace of the county,” in addition to outlining the official’s duties.

Walla Walla and College Place are code cities under law, therefore are required to appoint “a city clerk and a chief law enforcement officer.”

The authority of the sheriff and police departments are generally concurrent within the cities and towns in a particular county, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington.

“Neither the county sheriff nor the city police have exclusive authority to investigate crimes and enforce laws within city and town boundaries,” the center’s Website says.

A 1990 Attorney General’s opinion makes it clear that if a city cannot provide adequate police protection for its residents, the sheriff must take that into consideration in allocating resources.

“However, the statutes do not obligate the sheriff to provide a city with a specific number of police officers or a specific level of police services,” the opinion states.

Most law enforcement services — including the hiring of appointed deputies and police officers — are funded by local, general tax revenue and, according to the MRSC, “Neither the state constitution nor state law mandates a specific number of law enforcement officers or level of law enforcement services.

“This is primarily a policy decision for the city or town council or (county) commission to determine.”

A city or town can provide services under the direction of an appointed police chief, contract with the county — as is the case with Waitsburg and Prescott — or hire resources from an adjacent city or town.

Mutual aid agreements also are common among agencies to pool efforts when emergencies occur.

Budgets for law enforcement agencies are set by the local, elected legislative bodies. For example, the Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office budget is approved by county commissioners; Walla Walla and College Place city councils establish the fiscal blueprints for their jurisdictions.

Because a county sheriff and commissioners all are elected, the MRSC spells out the relationship in its new-commissioner handbook:

“The board of commissioners establishes positions, approves the annual operating budget and approves labor contracts with the concurrence of the sheriff. Counties participate in a number of state and federal grants programs such as marine safety, D.A.R.E., community policing and regional drug enforcement. The board approves contracts for such programs.”

“As a general rule, the sheriff’s office has no significant operating revenues,” the handbook says.


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