The office of the Sheriff is one that dates back more than a thousand years. Originating in England, the word sheriff derives from the term shire reeve, which designated a royal official responsible for keeping the peace throughout a shire or county on behalf of the king. The office of the Sheriff has since been preserved in England, and has also been established in many other countries.
In colonial Texas, the office of Sheriff evolved from that of the alguacil, its Spanish equivalent. The duties of the alguacil included patrol, arrest, custody and execution of executive and judicial writs. The modern Sheriff first made its appearance in Texas around 1824, when the colony of San Felipe de Austin formed a set of community rules that included an appointed Sheriff to enforce regulations.
In 1836, the constitution of the newly created Republic of Texas formally required the position of Sheriff, and the office has been provided for under every Texas constitution since. The constitution of 1876 stipulated that the Sheriff be elected every two years by qualified voters in each county, and the term of office was lengthened to four years by a 1954 constitutional amendment.
Travis County was formally established on January 25, 1840, and the first Sheriff was elected in February of that year. Travis County was carved from Bastrop County, and the encompassing area, known as the Travis District, consisted of roughly 40,000 square miles. It was the Sheriff’s responsibility to provide law enforcement within these boundaries. The Sheriff appointed deputies to assist in his duties, which included the protection of citizens’ lives and property, keeping public order, preventing crime, arresting lawbreakers, taking care of the county courthouse and administering the county jail. With the establishment of the district courts, and later the county courts, the Sheriff also functioned as executive officer, serving all writs, subpoenas, summonses, and processes, in both civil and criminal matters, a job requiring long hours in the saddle every week.
By the 1850s, the city of Austin had begun to prosper, and the rapidly growing population made Travis County a breeding ground for lawlessness. It was not an easy job to be the County Sheriff. Rural parts of the county were particularly unsettled, troubled with outlawry, vigilante justice, and feuds. It was not uncommon for a lone sheriff or deputy to arrive at someone’s home in the remote countryside with his court papers or to investigate an offense, and find himself up against a formidable and dangerous individual. Such potentially hazardous situations contributed to the sometimes rapid turnover of Texas sheriffs during the nineteenth century. Patrols were done on horseback, firearms were provided by each individual, and uniforms consisted solely of a sheriff’s badge.
Today, the Travis County Sheriff has law enforcement jurisdiction in the entire county, although the department does not normally exercise this authority within the city limits of Austin, which are served by the Austin Police Department. The 825 square miles outside the Austin city limits are patrolled by the Travis County Sheriff’s office, and officers answer calls ranging from traffic violations to homicides.
The Sheriff’s Office has many law enforcement components, including patrol, criminal investigations, a full-time SWAT team, estray, highway enforcement, and victim services. The law enforcement fleet includes not only numerous cars, but also SWAT vehicles and patrol boats. The Sheriff’s Office also has many non-law enforcement units, such as the Corrections Bureau, which ensures the security and maintenance of the correctional facilities and administers all inmate related programs. The Community Outreach unit includes programs that address adult, home and child safety and school resource officers. In all, there are approximately 1,700 employees of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.