Deputy Sheriff vs. Police Officer: What's the Difference?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published August 4, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Deputy sheriffs and police officers are similar law enforcement professionals who often possess comparable skills and education requirements. However, there are some key differences that separate these two career paths. Understanding these differences can provide you with more insight into these law enforcement positions and help you determine which profession may be right for you. In this article, we define the positions of deputy sheriff and police officer and describe their key differences, including jurisdiction, training, education, job duties, salary and work environment information.

What is a deputy sheriff?

A deputy sheriff is a law enforcement professional who oversees the entire county in which they work. Deputy sheriffs work within their county to uphold and enforce the law, often working alongside local or federal officers, depending on the nature of a particular case or investigation. These professionals typically begin their careers as police patrol officers in an urban setting, such as a city or town. The elected sheriff of a county typically appoints their deputies, choosing from highly qualified officers to create an effective team of professional deputies who assist sheriffs in their duties.

Read more: How To Become a Deputy Sheriff

What is a police officer?

A police officer is a law enforcement professional who works in an urban setting and is responsible for solely patrolling the city or town in which they work. Police officers also uphold and enforce the law, contribute to investigations, testify against convicted criminals and may provide support during traffic collisions. Police officers can serve as patrol officers, where they monitor a specific area of a city to deter crime and pursue criminals. Police officers typically apply to local police departments for employment, instead of being appointed by senior officers or by an election, as a sheriff does.

Read more: How To Become a Police Officer

Differences between a deputy sheriff and a police officer

The career paths of a deputy sheriff and a police officer share many similarities, but the two diverge in relation to jurisdiction, training and salary. Here are some of the main differences between a deputy sheriff and a police officer:

Jurisdiction

The primary difference between a police officer and a deputy sheriff is their jurisdiction, or the geographical area in which they can legally operate. A deputy sheriff typically possesses jurisdiction over an entire county, which may contain several small towns and cities. These professionals can conduct investigations and assist local law enforcement but rarely leave the state in which they work. A police officer, however, typically possesses jurisdiction within their city. An officer's jurisdiction may also apply to the surrounding areas of a city or specific highways and sections of their county.

A city typically has a higher concentration of police officers than a county does deputy sheriffs. A sheriff may strategically place their deputies more widely throughout their jurisdiction to cover a larger area, where police officers often work in groups or pairs within their city limits. Deputy sheriffs and police officers might collaborate on cases where criminal activity occurs within both of their jurisdictions and requires cooperation between departments to resolve.

Training

Both deputy sheriffs and police officers undergo specific training at a police academy or similar university training program. Training can take up to six months, depending on the program you choose to pursue. Officers typically receive weapons and police policy training, which can differ between cities, states and jurisdictions. For example, city police officers may receive training in riot disbursement and crowd control because a city setting may experience larger gatherings of people. Conversely, a sheriff's deputy might not require this training because their jurisdiction may never experience these types of gatherings.

Police officers and deputy sheriffs often have opportunities to pursue the same training path, but the requirements of their training might vary by state. For example, some states require additional policy training for deputy sheriffs. If you want to pursue either career path, it may be helpful to research the requirements for the state in which you seek employment.

Related: Things To Consider Before Becoming a Police Officer

Education

Both deputy sheriffs and police officers can pursue an undergraduate degree in law enforcement to supplement their knowledge of law, criminal investigations and police policy. Undergraduate degrees can take between two and four years to complete. An associate degree is a two-year program that teaches students the basics of law enforcement, whereas a bachelor's degree is a four-year program that teaches more advanced concepts and methods. Students who hold a bachelor's degree in law enforcement may earn a higher salary because of the advanced knowledge they attain.

Deputy sheriffs and police officers typically hold at least an associate degree, but a degree isn't always a requirement, as it may vary by employer. Education requirements can vary by state, too, with some states requiring officers to pursue an undergraduate degree before entering academy training. Regardless of the career path you choose or the state in which you plan to pursue your career, an undergraduate degree in law enforcement can help support your ambitions.

Job duties

Deputy sheriffs and police officers share similar duties, with a few key differences:

  • Patrolling areas: Both deputy sheriffs and police officers patrol their jurisdictions to deter crime and monitor civilians. However, police officers often patrol city streets, while deputy sheriffs typically patrol highways or county roads.

  • Investigating crimes: Deputy sheriffs and police officers both investigate crimes, but the nature of those crimes and their jurisdictions can determine the level of involvement for both law enforcement professions. For example, a police officer may investigate a burglary within their city but surrender that case to detectives who specialize in homicides if a murder also occurred at the crime scene, even though the crime happened in their jurisdiction.

  • Enforcing laws: Deputy sheriffs and police officers both enforce the law but maintain respect for each other's jurisdictions. Cooperation between departments is frequent and often necessary to solve high-profile crimes.

  • Monitoring roadways: Deputy sheriffs typically monitor highways and county roads for traffic violations, whereas police officers monitor city roads and highways within city limits.

Salary

Another key difference between a deputy sheriff and a police officer is their annual salaries. Police officers typically earn an average salary of $53,524 per year, while deputy sheriffs can earn an average salary of around $41,453 per year. Depending on the level of education a law enforcement officer receives and the state in which they work, a higher salary may be available for both positions. Advancement opportunities are also often available for both professionals. For example, a deputy sheriff might advance to become the county sheriff through an election.

Related: 16 Alternative Careers for Police Officers

Work environment

Both deputy sheriffs and police officers work in similar environments, but police officers typically remain within their city limits. Urban environments can be difficult to patrol due to city grid layouts, buildings and heavy traffic areas. Sheriff deputies typically work in more rural areas, which present their own challenges, such as extensive areas of land to patrol. Both deputies and police officers work both outside and in office settings.

Both professions share similar workplace hazards, as well. The nature of criminal investigation can be potentially dangerous, but police officers and deputy sheriffs receive thorough training on threat detection and prevention. Both officers also may work with the public to ensure a safe environment and the ability to locate criminals quickly.

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