The unchecked power of the elected sheriff
Last week, a judge ordered Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer to stay 1,000 feet away from a local Black newspaper carrier. The carrier, Sedrick Altheimer, had filed an anti-harassment protection order against Troyer.
This isn’t the only legal trouble Troyer is facing. But Troyer is still in office and he says he plans to stay there.
Ed Troyer was elected sheriff in Pierce County in November 2020. In January 2021, he called an officers-only emergency line, claiming that his local newspaper delivery person, Sedrick Altheimer, had threatened his life.
Fourteen officers arrived at the scene.
Jared Brown, the News Tribune's criminal legal accountability reporter, says that call was later canceled when officers realized there was no emergency. The case is still being investigated, but Troyer has been charged for false reporting and making a false or misleading statement to a public servant.
He's also been ordered to stay 1,000 feet away from Altheimer, who has quit his job because he no longer feels safe in the neighborhood.
Troyer has been placed on the Brady list, which means if Troyer is called to testify in a case, prosecutors would have to tell the defense that what he says isn't necessarily trustworthy based on this interaction with Altheimer.
Troyer also faces a federal lawsuit filed by Altheimer, but that case remains on hold until the criminal case is decided.
Troyer is still the Pierce County sheriff. He says he plans to remain in office, and, as of now, there's nothing that can be done to prevent that.
"The primary check on sheriffs is that they can lose their jobs in an election," explained Aaron Littman, assistant professor at the UCLA School of Lawand deputy director of the UCLA Law COVID Behind Bars Data Project.
"There are also, and they really vary by state, processes for suspending or removing sheriffs from office," Littman said. "Often it's something that the governor can do. Sometimes a county prosecutor can initiate a special action to suspend the sheriff. But generally that is only possible in the most extreme of circumstances. So, a sheriff has been convicted of a crime, some other sort of formal finding of egregious misconduct. And as a result, it's quite rare and isn't really an effective approach for addressing a sheriff who is behaving lawfully, but has gone rogue in the sense that they are departing dramatically from the policy preferences of the community."
That's by design. The role of the sheriff goes back to to pre-revolutionary Britain. As a result, they have a much broader role than regular police officers or even police chiefs.
"They're the people who run the jail," Littman said, "who determine what services people get while they're incarcerated, and especially in pre-trial detention. They're also the ones who decide what laws are enforced and not enforced and how aggressively and against whom."
Because sheriff is an elected position, people who hold the position aren't accountable to the usual law enforcement hierarchy. They're meant to be accountable to their constituents.
There are efforts in some places to change the position of sheriff, and the power it entails.
In King County that’s involved shifting the position from an elected role to an appointed one, meaning the sheriff answers to the King County executive and council, instead of running for office.
And that's not the only way people are considering changing the position.
Some are pushing to elect people who will reform local jails, or prevent ICE from arresting undocumented immigrants, Littman said.
"And there are some who believe in certain jurisdictions across the country that we should abolish sheriff's offices," he said, "replace them with perhaps appointed officials who hold the same title, perhaps with some other form of law enforcement entirely."
None of these efforts have gained traction in Pierce County. Last summer, the council voted down a proposed ballot measure to put the question to voters of whether to turn the sheriff's position into an appointed one.
The sheriff is still elected. And with two years left in his term, Troyer has plenty of time to prepare for a re-election campaign.