PG Tricentennial Prince George's County:
Over 300 years of History

The Fascinating History of the Office of the Sheriff, 1696-1996

by Lt. Lou Oertly, Prince George's County Sheriff's Office.

SHERIFF BADGE On April 22, 1696 Thomas Greenfield was appointed by Governor Sir Francis Nicholson as the first sheriff of Prince George's County, Maryland. the first courthouse in the county was established by Sheriff Greenfield in Saint Paul's Church in Charlestown, Maryland. This was the county seat until November, 1696 when it was moved to a storehouse owned by Mr. David Small. The County seat then moved to Upper Marlboro in the 1720's where it still houses the County Government, Courts and Corrections Center. The original duties of the Sheriff included the collection of taxes, making public proclamations, calling the court into session, administering corporal and capital punishment, maintaining the county jail and enforcing the law. The office had no budget as the Sheriff was paid a fee for each service that was performed. For example, he might be paid a portion of a hogshead of tobacco for each prisoner in the county jail or for each paper of warrant served. Some of these responsibilities have become obsolete or have been taken over by other governmental agencies but the Sheriff has retained some of the original common law duties of the original Sheriff.

Prince George's County remained a rural county for the next two-hundred years. The Office of the Sheriff along with local constables provided the county with more than adequate police protection. After the Revolution, Sheriff's were elected by the voters and not appointed by the state governor.

During the war of 1812 the Sheriff's Office was involved in an incident which resulted in the writing of our national anthem. When the British army marched on Washington they passed through upper Marlboro. The local residents cooperated with the invading army and the British Commander saw to it that no major damage was done to local property. After the battle of Bladensburg and the burning of Washington, the British army marched back through Upper Marlboro. This time some of the British soldiers looted local farms and were arrested by a Sheriff's Posse. The stragglers were placed in the county jail. When the British commander learned of the arrests of his soldiers, he ordered the arrest of the ringleaders of the posse in turn. One of these was Dr. William Beam who was arrested and held for ransom on a British warship. His brother-in-law, Francis Scott Key went to the British fleet anchored off Baltimore Harbor and witnessed the attack on Fort McHenry. This inspired him to write the Star Spangled Banner .

jail The Office of the Sheriff continued to perform it's routine duties until the onset of the American Civil War. During the civil war Prince George's County was placed under martial law and occupied by Federal troops. There was a considerable underground movement during these years leading to common conflicts between the local authorities and the federal troops. In one documented incident a Confederate soldier shot and killed a Federal soldier and upon making his escape stole a local farmer's horse. The Sheriff formed a posse and captured the horse thief in the southern part of the county. While returning the prisoner to the jail, the Sheriff was intercepted by Federal cavalry, who demanded that he turn over his prisoner. There was a tense standoff as the Sheriff did not consider the killing of the Federal soldier a crime. The arrival of additional troops apparently persuaded the Sheriff to turn over the prisoner.

When a particularly horrendous crime was committed in the county, the Sheriff or the State's Attorney could request that the Governor assign some detectives from the Baltimore City Police to investigate the crime. This was routinely done until 1929 when the county created its own police department. Prince George's County was rapidly expanding and becoming a suburb of Washington, DC. The locally elected sheriff and constables could not keep up with the additional responsibilities of the growing county. The newly created Police Department was detached from the Sheriff with an appointed Chief of Police. The Sheriff continued to maintain concurrent law enforcement jurisdiction with the police department and to run the County Jail. Inevitably this resulted in conflicts between the two agencies. In 1969, the Sheriff's office was maintaining a volunteer posse of over 500 citizens to complete its taks and the Legislature decided that something had to be done. A statute was passed defining the duties of the Sheriff's Office. These included:

  1. providing the Service of all court civil and criminal process (i.e. summonses, subpoenas, attachments, eviction orders, domestic violence orders, etc...
  2. processing and servicing all criminal warrants, writs of attachments, Grand Jury Indictments, emergency psychiatric commitments and other court orders to take a person into custody;
  3. providing security for the District and Circuit Courts located in Prince George's County;
  4. transporting of prisoners to and from the courts and other places of confinement including the extradition of wanted fugitives form other states or nations to face legal action;
  5. operating the county detention facilities (revoked in 1978);
  6. The full power of arrest (all Deputy Sheriff's are now trained and certified as police officers);
  7. Criminal investigations are limited to issues involving the Office of the Sheriff or by court order (Investigation of Casino Laws were added in 1994).
This law excluded general criminal investigation allowing the Sheriff's Office to develop a particular expertise in the above areas. Deputy Sheriffs from all over the country now come to Prince George's county to observe and train in these fields.

One little known fact is the unique relationship between the Sheriff's Office and United States Marshals. In the late 1950's a former Sheriff of Prince George's County was appointed U.S. Marshall for the District of Columbia. He brought with him a cadre of former Deputy Sheriff's. These officers provided a more pro-active concept of law enforcement for the Federal court system and became the nucleus of the Marshall's new service. The U.S. Marshall's are now regarded as one of the premier law enforcement agencies in the country with it's structure and philosophy based on the principles established in the Prince George's Sheriff's office. The Marshall's Service and the Sheriff's Office maintain a close professional relationship and assisted each other on fugitive task forces and other investigations.

The Sheriff was responsible for the operation of the County jail until 1978 when the county formed the Department of Corrections, staffed by former Deputy Sheriffs. The county now has a state of the art correctional facility with a command staff made up of former Deputy Sheriffs.

sheriff cars
The Office of the Sheriff was called upon again in 1994 to enforce the Casino Gambling regulation for the county. This includes investigating criminal matters and regulating licenses and permits for charitable training.

Today the Office of the Sheriff has a staff of roughly 290 personnel including the Sheriff and four appointed assistants, the remainder are full time merit employees of the county. It's current responsibility as the enforcement arm of the courts and support services for other law enforcement agencies actually includes the processing of over 30,000 warrants, serving over 150,000 pieces of civil process, serving over 5,000 domestic violence protective orders, carrying out over 5,000 evictions, providing security for 40 courtrooms with lockups which handle over 18,000 prisoners, transportation of over 30,000 prisoners and extraditing of over 1,000 fugitives from other states. The Office of the Sheriff is the 10th largest law enforcement agency in the state making more arrests than all but five law enforcement agencies.

The Deputy Sheriff's Association of Prince George's County became the official bargaining agent for Deputy Sheriffs in 1980. During these years they worked to encourage professionalism and training in the Office of the Sheriff. In 1993 the Deputy Sheriff's Association was elected as the bargaining unit for the civilian employees of the Sheriff's Office and chartered as Lodge 112 of the Fraternal Order of Police.

The Office of the Sheriff provides services to the citizens of Prince George's County twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year. The Sheriff's Office has been a vital link in the criminal justice system for 300 years, providing the citizens of Prince George's county with professional law enforcement.

Pictures made possible by Sgt. David Norman. Thanks to him and the Prince George's County Sheriff's Office for allowing us to share their history on the web.

Prince George's History page.
Support our county history by joining the Prince George's Co. Historical Society
These pages were created as a part of the 1996 PG County Tricentennial celebration. Additional history resources are listed on the bibliography page. These pages are not being updated. They are now located on the Prince George's County Historical Society's web site. Contact links: web site manager - Society information. You can search the entire site through this search form.:

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