Sunday, November 08, 2009

Most Grits readers say get rid of constables

Last week Grits posed this question in a reader poll: "Does Texas still need constables in the 21st century? A whopping 67% of you said "No." Another 22% wanted to keep them and 9% weren't sure.

Count me among those who believe constables should and ultimately will go the way of the county inspector of hides and animals. They're anachronisms, even if for the moment in the bigger counties they're often also well-funded sources of law-enforcement pork that duplicate larger agencies' capacity, if frequently in a less regulated or professional environment. They're also bottom-tier elected officials, which is enough to receive deference from the political establishment in both parties when their power is challenged. Even where they work as they're historically supposed to, constables require duplicative supervisory and administrative staffing and counties would probably function better if those duties were subsumed by the Sheriff.

Most Texas constables stick to their traditional duties, but in larger jurisdictions they've become mini-police departments. A series of recent items from the Dallas News underscores how little oversight these agencies receive compared to their often dramatically expanding budgets:
Meanwhile, from a couple of weeks ago we find a related debate occurring in Travis County, where commissioners expressed discomfort with the expanding role of constables in an Austin Statesman story from Oct. 20, "Constable vehicles fuel debate," wherein "County Judge Sam Biscoe said that law enforcement "should not be the primary responsibility of the constable's office. That's why we have a sheriff and about 300 law enforcement deputies.'" Bingo!

It sounds like Biscoe and Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt are asking the right questions about constables' request to outfit them with more militaristic equipment like Sheriff's deputies. After the episode where a deputy constable tasered a 72-year old great grandmother because she dared him to, Travis County constables ought to be treated like Barney Fife - given a single bullet apiece and told to keep in in their shirt pockets until ordered to take it out.

I fully understand why county commissioners in Dallas and Travis think constables need to be reined in. The Statesman story included this telling comment: "Travis County Sheriff Greg Hamilton earlier criticized Bieze's actions in the Taser incident. On Monday, Hamilton declined to comment on the role of the constable, but Travis County sheriff's spokesman Roger Wade said: 'According to the (Texas Code of Criminal Procedure), the only difference (between the sheriff and constable) is the name.'" That's technically true, if also somewhat troubling. Perhaps it's something the Legislature should take a stab at rectifying sooner than later.

5 comments:

Bethany Anderson said...

What's interesting is that these stories are in counties that have larger cities within them. The population can support large police forces and sheriff's departments, so yes, constables are probably not necessary.

But then you've got poorer, rural counties. Take Fannin County, for instance. The constables there (there's just one per precinct, no deputies) help fill in where very small police forces can't possibly do everything for their cities, and where sheriff's offices are hamstringed by small budgets. They serve as bailiffs, too, at the courthouse. In this case, constables do provide a valuable service.

So maybe the legislature needs to limit what counties can have constable offices, and how many deputies they can have, by population.

Soronel Haetir said...

The thing I find surprising about the hides and animals inspector, at least in Idaho that official still performs a useful task. They are required to examine cattle put forward at general auction for example to ensure that it is actually the owner selling the animals.

At least the title sounds basically the same as Brand Inspector. Does Texas have someone else perform this task?

Anonymous said...

Bethany,

If you take the funds used for the constables in a rural area and rebudget to the sheriff you still get the manpower but it can be used more efficiently. Nothing like wasting money by duplicating a patrol function with no serious coordination - that is what is happening where ever constables fulfill patrol functions, rural or metropolitan areas.

Soronel,

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association has about 30 Special Rangers (a commission under the Texas Rangers for those operating in the state of Texas) paid to address the investigation of cattle rustling and other related crimes. Working with dozens of market inspectors at the various livestock markets, they address the needs of the industry.:~)

Boyness said...

I have an idea. Lets get rid of the constables and have them go secure TDCJ facilities from contraband! They can use there dogs!!!

Anonymous said...

You know Scott, your point is well taken.

Why not abolish the Sheriff's Offices and Police Departments as well and just have one State Police Agency.

If you really want to cut the crap here.... We could have one Federal Police agency that acts in the place of police departments, sheriff's offices.

We could also merge the FBI and the CIA that could assist in cutting out unnecessary bureaucratic layers.

Or we could merge the military and our newly created federal police/intelligence agency.

Now Scott, that was Soviet Russia's idea with the KGB.

That is a bit extreme but seriously, why do we have city police departments, school police departments when a Sheriff's Office could take over those duties?