Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Constables' roles debated in context of budget crisis

County-level budget crises are raising long-simmering questions about the proper role of constables and whether they should act as mini-Sheriff's departments or stick to serving civil papers and acting as court bailiffs. In Van Zandt County in East Texas:
Precinct 4 Constable Pat Jordan spoke earlier this week about the history of the office of constable in Texas.

"The first form of law enforcement in Texas, as it was being settled, was the constable," Jordan said.

"The state constitution gives us the rights and duties of any other peace officer," he continued. "Really, the only difference between a constable and the county sheriff is that a constable is given the duties of bailiffing the precinct (justice of the peace) court and serving civil process papers, and the sheriff is the keeper of the jail."

Van Zandt County Sheriff Pat Burnett sees things differently, and it underscores a longstanding tension between he and Jordan, a former Van Zandt County Sheriff.

Returning from a statewide sheriff’s convention in Fort Worth on Tuesday, Burnett said the issue of whether a constable should go beyond court bailiff and civil paper serving duties is not unique to Van Zandt County.

"It’s a statewide problem.," he said. "A constable’s constitutional duties are acting as bailiff for the justice of the peace in their precinct, and to serve civil process papers.

"When you have a constable or one of his reserves getting out of those realms and wanting to be a sheriff’s office, that is when things start getting off track," Burnett added.

It is a sentiment that was echoed Tuesday by comments from Precinct 2 Commissioner Virgil Melton Jr., one of three members of the commissioners’ court who voted to reduce the reserve deputy constable program to one position in each of the four precincts.

With Jordan sitting adjacent to him at the table, Melton Jr. criticized the constable for "running a mini-sheriff’s office" in Precinct 4 and interfering with investigations being handled by Sheriff Burnett’s staff.
Similarly, in Corsicana Navarro County officials rejected a request to increase constable pay so that constables could perform policing duties in addition to bailiff work and process serving:
[Constable David] Foreman appeared before county commissioners Tuesday requesting a salary of $35,000 on top of expenses, even though his salary is budgeted at $12,651. He made a similar request of commissioners in the 2009 budget discussions, as did two of the other three county constables, including Precinct 4’s Tommy Grant and Precinct 1’s Mike Davis. Brad Butler, Precinct 3 constable, did not request a salary increase.

Foreman argued that he carries out more than his standard duties and should be paid in the same way as other elected county officials.

“I have never spent my budget in wages because it is just sitting there,” said Foreman. “You are stewards of the tax payers money and I am as well. I don’t agree that I am part time. I spend a lot of time patrolling and answering calls.”

County budget figures show that there could now be a budget deficit approaching the $1.5 million mark, and [County Judge H.M.] Davenport defended fending off further expenses.

“The statutes say you should serve the papers and bailiff duties,” replied Davenport. “It doesn’t say anything about patrols or anything else. Honestly, I don’t think that it is fair to tax payers who would pay the money for work only carried out every now and again. With this economy it is best to just hang on to what we have got.”
This blog has long held that it's extremely problematic for constables to take on everyday policing duties, in both big counties and small. So I was pleased to see, for example, that in Dallas this week the commissioners court supported:
creating more stringent hiring requirements for deputy constables, a response to corruption allegations surrounding certain constable offices.

Applicants currently don't have to take a written test, physical assessment or polygraph test – all of which are required to be hired as a sheriff's deputy. Commissioners said they favor adding those tests for constable deputies.

They had asked the county human resources department to study the job qualifications and hiring process of deputy constables earlier this year after a Dallas Morning News investigation in February. ...

A recent state audit of the personnel files of several Dallas County deputy constables in Precinct 5 revealed that the files didn't contain required documentation, such as criminal background checks and confirmation of previous employment.
Indeed, Dallas is also likely to scale back constables' office budgets in the face of declining tax revenues:
Also Tuesday, during a budget discussion, county budget director Ryan Brown said that eliminating 30 of the 40 constable warrant deputy positions would save about $3 million. Each constable precinct has eight warrant deputies.

Brown is trying to close a $23 million budget shortfall. The constable traffic units are also among the items facing elimination.
Perhaps the budget crisis will succeed in scaling back constables' roles where good judgment and common sense could not prevail. At the end of the day, though, what's IMO needed is a new law or constitutional amendment expressly limiting constables to process serving and bailiff's duties and flat-out removing them from the list of officers exercising a full range of police powers.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I love Judge Davenport's new-found conservatism. As long as the economy is bad and he can't afford it, he doesn't want to pay for duplicative services. But any time a neww tax revenue source comes in they hire more people and give everyone raises. Some conservative.

Yeah, it's off topic a bit, but I never get to see our fair county in the news unless we execute a guy wrongly, so I'm taking my chance.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"I never get to see our fair county in the news unless we execute a guy wrongly"

Not true! There is also the annual Christmas media homage to fruitcakes from the Collin Street Bakery! ;)

Hook Em Horns said...

Precinct 4 Constable Pat Jordan spoke earlier this week about the history of the office of constable in Texas.

"The first form of law enforcement in Texas, as it was being settled, was the constable," Jordan said.

"The state constitution gives us the rights and duties of any other peace officer," he continued. "Really, the only difference between a constable and the county sheriff is that a constable is given the duties of bailiffing the precinct (justice of the peace) court and serving civil process papers, and the sheriff is the keeper of the jail."
-----------------------------------
TRANSLATED - this is the way we have ALWAYS DONE IT. NO NEED TO CHANGE! - Typical dumb ass view which is why so much of Texas is mired in it's own celebrated folklore and nonsense which costs all of us.

In Harris County, taxes pay for the "police-constables" who then contract to patrol the toll roads. Talk about a double-dip!

Anonymous said...

Yes indeed, in Harris County the constable have the biggest protection racket going in Texas.
The constables mafia makes crime pay.

Anonymous said...

and today there is a story on channel 2 - houston - where a judge is going around with the constables (at least the constables are shown in the photos) hauling people off to jail for truancy. (Montgomery County)

Anonymous said...

If the constable's role is defined in the state constitution as one of process servers and the bailiffs in the JP courts, then the conservative approach would dictate that those are their ONLY legal duties and anything beyond that would be strictly unlawful and overreaching. On the other hand, performing any duties not strictly prohibited would be viewed as the "liberal" approach.

Anonymous said...

Well, here is a classic case of, "Not telling the whole story". First, Constables are NOT just limited to serving court process and to bailiff the JP courts by law or the Texas constitution. A Constable is the chief law enforcement officer of the precinct, and chief conservator of the peace in their precinct. However, the Constable is charged with serving all process, writs and warrants issued to their office, but are not in any way limited to this.

The sheriff also has the same requirements under the law. In addition, the sheriff is charged with running the county jail. In both cases, neither the constable nor the sheriff are limited from establishing patrol, traffic or warrant divisions---they of course just need to be funded by the commissioner's court.

In counties where you see a more active role by the constable's you’ll often find a sheriff that refuses to provide LE services in the county that the constituents want or need.

In the big picture, the readers should be more concerned that their sheriff's and constable's are not working together for the better good of their communities. If a deputy constable is out serving a warrant and/or civil process and observe an on-view crime being committed, not only should they act, but they are duty-bound by the LAW to do so.

Dallas County is a unique circumstance in regards to the Constable’s and the Sheriff. Until the state of Texas decides to install certain education and experience requirements to become an elected constable or sheriff, we will continue to see these, “spot” incidences of corruption and bad business practices. Let’s face it folks, most of our elected law enforcement officials would never be eligible to run some of our most reputable municipal police departments, so why on earth do we elect them to manage our county law enforcement agencies?

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