Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Clarifying the Different Roles of F.C.’s Sheriff & City Police

By Matt Cay

As the Sheriff of the City of Falls Church, I am often asked about the differences between the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department. Although both agencies share responsibilities essential to the public safety of the residents and to the visitors to our jurisdiction, there exist fundamental aspects and functions specific to each law enforcement entity. I previously have had the privilege of serving as a police officer with the City of Falls Church Police Department and as a deputy sheriff and as the Chief Deputy of the City of Falls Church Sheriff’s Office, as well as have practiced law in Virginia, all experiences which assist in providing the following information.

Historically, the duties of the sheriff are rooted in the 11th century organization of the English government. In the 17th century, Virginia was divided into “shires” by the King of England and a “reeve’ was appointed and assigned to each division to maintain community security and peace, to resolve disputes, to enforce the King’s orders and to collect taxes. As Virginia became more populated and society became more organized and communities more complex the “shire reeve” which over time evolved to the designation “sheriff” assumed an increasing number and scope of additional required responsibilities including law enforcement, court and jail administration and security, inmate transportation, court order enforcement, fugitive apprehension and civil process.

The first sheriff’s office in America was created in 1634 in Virginia. The continuing evolution of organized communities created a significant increase in the partitioning of larger jurisdictions which formed numerous independent local, city and county governments many of which implemented their own law enforcement entity which commonly was designated as the police department. The first organized police department was formed in Boston in 1638 followed by the formation of the police department in New York City in 1845.

The sheriff, as an elected and sworn state law enforcement official, derives the authority of the office from the Constitution of Virginia. In contrast, the director of a police department is appointed by the locality and is commonly designated as the “chief of police” whose authority is conferred by the local government served by the department. However, in the City of Falls Church, both agencies observe specific jurisdictional boundaries which are shared.
The City of Falls Church is served by a state court system and the Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the security and safety of the court and related facilities as well as providing the security for all of the court attendees including judges, court clerk personnel, prosecutors, other attorneys, parties, witnesses, translators and observers as well as to execute all civil and criminal court processes and orders.

The Falls Church General District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court are conducted in the City of Falls Church and the Falls Church Sheriff’s Office personnel provide all the necessary logistical, safety and other required support to ensure the proper functional administration of court services as described above in compliance with state requirements. The Sheriff’s Office also ensures the attendance of all individuals summoned by the Courts.

This function regularly involves securing the custody of individuals from detention facilities or other agencies or facilities or by locating individuals by executing court warrants and safely transferring them to locations or implementing other dispositions in compliance with the Courts’ orders. The Sheriff’s Office also continues its historical duties of collecting delinquent local taxes by assisting the Treasurer’s Office with tax levies and sales as well as executing court-ordered evictions and property seizures. Our office also ensures the implementation of moratoriums and restrictions and other considerations regarding evictions to promote the receipt of assistance to those requiring services and resources to avoid displacement.

The Sheriff’s Office, in conjunction with other City departments, also continues to provide Covid-19 pandemic preparation, mitigation, recovery and community safety services as well as City facilities security and safety. The Sheriff’s Office also performs the function of administering large scale community quarantines in the event of a localized health event including the transportation of response emergency medical health professionals and personnel.

The Sheriff’s Office also assists the Police Department, which is tasked with the primary law enforcement and patrol function in the City, as needed. In addition, the Sheriff’s Office provides personnel and resources to provide public safety, security and traffic control during parades, runs, festivals, gatherings and other community events as well as conducts numerous public and community programs including child-seat installation and use, public safety outreach and traffic calming and enforcement. In addition, Sheriff’s Office personnel are also trained and equipped to respond to critical and emergency situations to provide additional law enforcement services and support within the City as well as for mutual aid to surrounding jurisdictions. All the members of the Sheriff’s Office and the Police Department are committed to interacting and to training collaboratively to ensure consistency of equipment, policies and practices to provide optimal public safety consistent with community and agency requirements and expectations.


Metin “Matt” Cay is the Sheriff for the City of Falls Church