Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dallas constables' traffic units on chopping block thanks to budget crisis

In the bloated, over-funded arena of criminal justice, budget crises may frequently succeed in forcing politicians to focus on public policy over special interests where rational arguments have failed. Such is the case with constables' offices in Dallas County, where commissioners will likely vote Monday to eliminate 80 positions devoted to traffic enforcement. Though constable deputies facing job loss accused the commissioners court of retaliating against whistleblowers, reported the Dallas News ("Livid Dallas County DA Craig Watkins fails in bid to save jobs from budget ax," Sept. 14):
Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has opposed the Defenbaugh investigation, said there is no attempt to retaliate against those who spoke up.

"That has nothing to do with it," Price said. "I don't know where they worked – whether it was traffic or civil [divisions]. We have no way of knowing who spoke to [investigator Danny] Defenbaugh."

In Defenbaugh's reports, witnesses who were interviewed are referred to by coded numbers. County officials say that was done to protect them.

Price said the constables can "write all the tickets in the world," but that the collection rate for those tickets is very low. As a result, the traffic units more or less break even each year, county officials say.

"It's just a business decision," Price said about the constable cuts. He and fellow commissioners Maurine Dickey and Mike Cantrell have sufficient votes to eliminate the traffic deputies.

Commissioners have slowly whittled down a $60 million budget shortfall in the $450 million general fund with cuts to every county department. Eliminating the 80 traffic deputies would save the county about $2 million, officials say. Commissioners can only eliminate positions. They cannot target individual deputies.
If the cuts were narrowly targeted at the 3-4 deputies who reported wrongdoing, I'd certainly be against the firings. But the idea that commissioners - including those who opposed the investigation - would eliminate 80 positions just to go after a handful of whistleblowers makes little sense. I feel sorry for the individuals who may lose their jobs, but from a public policy perspective it's the right move.

The fact is, constables' offices frequently suffer from a relative lack of competence and professionalism, as evidenced by 5,600 old warrants recently found in a box at one Dallas constable's office that were never entered into the computer system. Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez also recently questioned the relative physical fitness of area constables.

This blog has long held that it's unwise and wasteful for constables to take on everyday policing duties normally performed by municipal police and sheriffs' deputies. In Dallas, traffic enforcement has frequently come at the expense of constables' traditional duties like serving papers in civil proceedings. That's redundant and expensive for taxpayers, but it's taken a budget crisis to get Texas counties to reconsider this ill-conceived trend.

The chance to shake up distended, anachronistic government agencies like constables is a silver lining to the current budget crunch, and I hope Dallas isn't the only county taking the opportunity to scale back tumid constable budgets.


Anonymous said...

So did Dallas PD or SO hire 80 more officers to take up the slack?

Another Grits attack with no solution.

Scott In South Austin said...

It's not a Grits attack 10:21. Its a budget issue.

How ironic is it that the Dallas Morning News has an article on he number of unqualified LEOs who work for District 1 and 5 Dallas Constables. It confirms to me that some of these constables are nothing more than a gateway for people who should no longer be allowed to have TCLEOS commissions. You know, like the officer who tasered a grandmother in West Travis county last year. That little event cost us Travis County taxpayers $400K.

By the Grits, its good to have you home.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:21, it's my view those officers don't need to be replaced at all. Neither the city nor county can afford it and Scott in South Austin is right about the relative quality of constable staff.

Anonymous said...

The Constable's offices should be barred from eligibility for federal grants. That will be their next move to increase manpower and authority. Already happening in Dallas County. There is one group that is so out of control with asset seizures and forfeitures and have very little criminal activity and even less accountability. But they got free cars and cash all in the name of cleaner air. Oh, and since when does a Dallas County Deputy Constable have the authority to go into Mexico to arrest people? That's one of their claims. Seems to me if we could do that then this whole cartel issue would have been solved by now.