Locally Elected Sheriffs and Money Compensation

Published date01 March 2008
Date01 March 2008
Subject MatterArticles
CJR315588.qxd Criminal Justice Review
Volume 33 Number 1
March 2008 5-28
© 2008 Georgia State University
Locally Elected Sheriffs and
Research Foundation, Inc.
Money Compensation
hosted at
A Quantitative Analysis of Organizational and
Environmental Contingency Explanations

Ronald Helms
Western Washington University
This study uses OLS and a large sample of U.S. counties to empirically assess diverse explanations
for pay allocated to local sheriffs. After statistically holding constant effects of agency size and
functional specialization, including jail operations, this study isolates diverse environmental
sources of variation in money wages allocated to the elected sheriff. A strong tax base helps
local sheriffs, as does income inequality associated with the presence of high income earners,
but local conservative political support is associated with reduced wage allocations. High
crime rates and local unemployment are closely associated with expanded money wages, but pay
is limited in counties with a large impoverished population. The empirical results are consistent with
an environmental contingency model. One implication from this analysis is that county sheriffs
are compensated at rates that reflect patterns of uncertainty in the organization’s localized
external environment.
sheriff agencies; law enforcement; discretion; wage inequality; executive com-
pensation; budgeting; contingency theory

Locally elected sheriffs experience considerable disparity in comparative annual money
wages. Whereas some county law enforcement executives earn a ceremonial wage,
others draw lavish returns for their public service. Both organizational and environmental
contingencies undoubtedly contribute to the uncertainty confronting this key law enforcement
post and may account for disparate rewards earmarked for occupants of this politically
sensitive elective office. The research I present here focuses on wage inequality among
elected sheriffs in counties throughout the United States and empirically assesses contingency
factors, both internal and external, that would seem key to an explanation for compensation
What factors account for the extreme differences in wages for local sheriffs? Researchers
unfortunately have not focused adequate attention on sherrifs’ agencies (Falcone & Wells,
1999; Henderson, 1975), and specifically have not analyzed determinants of executive
compensation.1 Regrettably, the organizational literature provides few insights about public
sector executive rewards because researchers generally have emphasized private-sector CEO
earnings (for an exception, see Halligan, 1994). These studies present dramatic evidence
Author’s Note: I wish to thank the editor and various manuscript reviewers, as well as Jim Inverarity, who
generously commented and offered advice on several earlier drafts of this article.

Criminal Justice Review
that CEOs in the largest private firms are richly compensated. Recent reports indicate that
earnings for private-sector CEOs are at an all-time high and that earnings are disproportion-
ate because the CEO-to-worker pay ratio stands at 400 to 1 (Anonymous, 2004, p. 111).
Research on the determinants of private-sector CEO compensation typically emphasizes
market performance explanations, but evidence that CEOs are compensated in accord with
their firm’s financial success is inconclusive at best. The Business Week 49th annual
Executive Pay Scoreboard results show that excessive rewards in a few firms is not merely
an aberration because executive compensation at 365 of the largest companies in the United
States outpaced the stock market in 1998 by 36% (Reingold & Grover, 1999, p. 72).
Academically oriented researchers (Attaway, 2000) report that with only a few exceptions,
reported findings on the relationship between firm performance and executive compensation
is weak. Thus, ballooning executive compensation packages in the private sector appear
only loosely coupled with firm performance indicators. Public sector executive wages are
most likely even less tied to specific economic performance expectations because typically
there is no obvious counterpart to private-sector measures of market performance. In fact,
organizational research has generally paid most attention to personnel size and specialization
among functional units to account for diverse organizational outcomes.2
Internal organizational explanations for variance in wages may indeed prove invaluable,
but research on internal predictors of organizational outcomes has not provided definitive
results. Lambert and his colleagues (1991, p. 402) conclude their analysis with the following
Changes in size, whether measured at the corporate or business unit level, do not exhibit a high
correlation with changes in compensation. Clearly, factors other than organizational size explain
the majority of variance in executive compensation. Identifying these factors and determining
whether they systematically govern executive compensation represents a significant challenge
for future research.
Studies of personnel and other organizational characteristics have not satisfactorily expli-
cated pay determinants for public-sector executives; such an internal focus may unnecessarily
limit insight into the sources of wage allocations for politically accountable local sheriffs.
A different set of explanations emphasizes local contingency arguments that may con-
tribute to pay variation. For example, sheriffs are locally elected officials whose organization
is the basic unit for provision of county law enforcement services (Falcone & Wells, 1999).
Political expectations for law enforcement are shaped by the problems generated in localized
environments, with more demanding environments most likely increasing political expec-
tations for the elected sheriff. Because county law enforcement provides a first-line response
to local social order threats, and law enforcement is not administered in a politically neutral
environment,3 variation in local political-contextual environments is potentially a key factor
influencing local sheriff agency outcomes.
This conceptualization highlights the key role played by executives in managing uncertainty
in the organization’s task environment. One hypothesis stemming from this conceptualization
is that where social contingencies are heightened, thereby placing increased demands on the
agency and its elected head, mean annual wages for the top local law enforcement executive
should be greater than wages allocated to executives in less demanding environments.

Helms / Sheriffs and Money Compensation
Sherrifs’ salaries vary substantially across jurisdictions. The mean for sherrifs’ salaries in
this study is $52,537, but annual pay ranges from $16,200 to $192,528. These vast differences
in pay allocations are likely to be influenced by many factors. This study assesses diverse
hypotheses concerning sources of pay variation for local sheriffs with regressions of an
indicator of sheriffs’ annual money wage on organizational and county level contextual
variables. Internal organizational explanations are not ignored, but an emphasis is placed
on the local external context in which the sherrifs’ office is situated and functions.
Literature Review
The empirical literature on determinants of sherrifs’ wage compensation is quite limited.
Thirty years ago, Henderson (1975) lamented that research had paid little attention to this
office. More recently, Falcone and Wells (1999) reiterated this same concern, asserting that very
little empirical research has been conducted on the sherrifs’ office. Henderson’s and Falcone
and Wells’ observations are confirmed by my own efforts to locate empirical literature relating
to sheriffs’ wages. This study begins to address this lack of previous research attention.
Henderson’s (1975) empirical analysis of environmental determinants of professionalism
among Florida sherrifs’ agencies is one of the very few studies to address variation in sherrifs’
office outcomes of any kind. His research offers valuable insight into local environmental
sources of sherrifs’ office professionalism and offers some indication that other sherrifs’
office outcomes may also be affected by political-contextual factors. Similarly, Falcone and
Wells (1999) emphasize the close relationships that often emerge between the sherrifs’
office and the local community and conceptualize the sherrifs’ office as one that is highly
responsive to local environmental influences.
The paucity of research attention focusing on the sherrifs’ office means that theoretical
guidance must come from other areas of research. Research on outcomes in other local
public agencies, specifically the municipal police and the criminal courts, should offer a
basis for development of plausible hypotheses concerning sources of variation in sherrifs’
office outcomes.4
Literature on Municipal Police
Empirical studies that focus on determinants of social control expenditures or the level of
police employment, and studies of sentencing decisions, indicate the potential importance
of an environmental contingency approach and suggest fruitful directions for the present
research. Jackson and Carroll (1981) assess a racial threat hypothesis in non-Southern cities
and find that the number of Blacks has a nonlinear effect on police expenditures. In other
research, Jacobs (1979); Liska, Lawrence, and Benson (1981); and Jackson (1989) report
that in...

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