The office of Sheriff can be traced back to 10th Century England when the Saxon Kings appointed a representative in the individual Shires (fore-runner of counties) to ensure that someone looked after the King’s interests, collected taxes and made sure his policies were followed and enforced. This representative, the “Shire’s Reeve” would eventually become recognized as the “Sheriff” and would become an office so important, that it was referenced in 27 clauses of the Magna Carta.
Most historians agree that the office of Sheriff first appeared in the New World right here in Lord Calvert’s proprietary colony of Mary Land. That first Sheriff, James Baldridge, took office in St. Mary’s in 1637.
The lower eastern shore of Maryland was settled in 1666 with the establishment of Somerset County and immediately Stephen Horsey was appointed as the this area’s first Sheriff by Charles Calvert, the Provincial Governor and future third Lord Baltimore. Somerset County would be divided as the population grew, with the eastern section splitting off as Worcester County in 1742 and the northern section becoming Wicomico County in 1867.
Wicomico County’s first Sheriff, William Howard, was a farmer from the Quantico area and he would begin a line of 41 men who would serve as Wicomico County’s chief lawman. An interesting facet of the early office of the Sheriff in Wicomico was the provision of relegating the Sheriff to a two year term. However, there was no prohibition on serving more than one term, as long as it was not sequential. The term was lengthened to four years in 1926 and the prohibition against consecutive terms was removed following the Second World War.
The responsibilities of the Sheriff in Maryland are still guided by the common law definition of the office as it existed in England and they are threefold: to be the Conservator of the Peace, the Head Officer of the Court and the Keeper of the Jail. All of these duties and responsibilities are equal in importance to the other, for example the responsibility of being the Conservator of the Peace does not outweigh the duty of being the Head Officer of the Court and Vice-Versa.
While crime has always existed in Wicomico County in some shape or fashion, it has not always been a significant burden on the early Sheriff’s, even though they were the only law enforcement outside of a municipality with its own police department. The early Sheriff was not paid, instead he was entitled to keep a percentage of fees that he collected but the county did compensate him with providing living quarters within the courthouse. Law enforcement, civil process and jail keeping were assisted with the appointment of part-time deputy sheriff’s. The first full time deputy sheriff’s did not appear until 1937. The early Sheriff’s did not wear uniforms (something that was not implemented until the years following World War II) and at times did not even carry a firearm.
The Sheriff considered by many to be Wicomico’s first modern sheriff, Jesse Pollitt, was elected in 1946. Sheriff Pollitt took over during times when several counties in Maryland had either transferred law enforcement responsibility to a non-elected and independent county police force or were considering doing so. Many have attributed Sheriff Pollitt’s leadership to restoring public confidence in the office in Wicomico County. Sheriff Deputies began wearing uniforms and operating marked patrol vehicles as they restored confidence in the ability of the sheriff to handle day to day law enforcement issues in the county. Sheriff Samuel A. Graham would be elected in 1958. Sheriff Graham, like his predecessor, was a man of significant respect within the county who continued the growth of the Sheriff and his office.
It was under Sheriff Graham that the Sheriff’s Office not only began using marked patrol vehicles, but that the authorized strength of his deputies increased from four to eight which allowed Sheriff Graham to implement a night patrol
The extra patrol staff proved beneficial to Wicomico County as our community began to see an influx of crime and new criminals from the metropolitan areas of Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Time changed as the “neighborhood offender” of the 1950’s gave way to a more determined individual, at times fueled by drugs such as heroin. It was one of these individuals, James Bartholomey of Hebron, MD that would stain the Sheriff’s Office.
Following the tragic slayings of Sheriff Graham and Deputy Kelly, it seemed as if Wicomico Count rallied around the office, especially amidst renewed calls to strip the Sheriff of law enforcement responsibility while forming a county police force.
The residents of Wicomico County elected one of Sheriff Graham’s deputy sheriffs, Bill Shockley, as Sheriff in 1970. Again, the county funded what was then a significant increase in staffing as the deputies increased to twelve. With the funding of two additional positions in the mid 1970’s, Sheriff Shockley created the agency’s first criminal investigation unit.
Running for a fourth term in 1982 proved unsuccessful for the incumbent as he lost to a retired state trooper, John Baker, While Sheriff Baker entered his office full of visions for the growth of the agency, his untimely death two years later prevented him from implementing any significant changes or improvements. A vision for growth would be achieved by Sheriff Baker’s successor, R. Hunter Nelms, himself also a former State Trooper and Chief of Police in the town of Delmar.
The realization that the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office would flourish into the full service agency it is seen as today would not have been possible without the leadership of Sheriff Nelms. With the creation of an independent Wicomico County Department of Corrections in 1981, Sheriff Nelms was able to focus exclusively on his responsibilities as the conservator of the peace and being the officer of the Circuit Court. By the time of Sheriff’s Nelms retirement in 2006 following his 22 years of service as Wicomico’s Chief Law Enforcement Officer, the agency had grown to its modern size of 91 sworn deputies. Also during Sheriff Nelms tenure, the agency further developed the Criminal Investigation Division, helped initiate the Wicomico County Narcotic Task Force, began placing deputies in the community substations, at times on bicycle patrol, created a K9 program that would become the model program on the shore and staffed the school resource officer program. This was all in addition to maintaining a patrol force that answered the county’s calls 24 hours a day.
Wicomico County’s current Sheriff, Michael A. Lewis, also a retired State Trooper built on the foundation laid by Sheriff Nelms. Technology upgrades that included Mobile Data Terminal, In Car camera systems and the issuance of patrol rifles enable deputies to enhance their efforts at fighting crime and keeping our county safe.
Under Sheriff Lewis, our agency saw increased participation with the Wicomico County Narcotic Task Force and the Maryland State Apprehension Team along with a renewed commitment to the Wicomico County Bureau of Investigation.
As we moved into the second decade of the 21st Century, our deputies stand prepared to serve, protect and defend our citizens along with those that visit or commute here to work every day.