Scott Morgan looks at the office of county constable in Texas, in a two-part audio feature.
As public office goes, county constable is considered the low end of the spectrum. The office has no legislative powers, can be tedious and even dangerous, and in rural counties is usually part time and low pay. So why would anyone want to be a county constable? And what exactly does the job involve?
As it turns out, quite a lot. At the most basic level, says Carlos Lopez, constables are the law enforcement arm for the courts. Lopez is the constable of Precinct 5 in Travis County, near Austin, and president-elect of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas. He says constables are bound by the Texas Constitution to provide bailiffs for Justice of the Peace Courts.
But that’s the only thing they must do. The reality of the job is, in a word, varied.
“It depends on what the communities’ needs are, what the commissioners feel that the constables’ duties should be, so it’s going to vary,” says Lopez. “Many times from county to county, and many times even from precinct to precinct.”
Since constables are peace officers, he says, they can provide any kind of public safety duties “as necessary or as reasonable, depending on the resources they have at their disposal.”
The resources, and the size of a constable’s office, can vary as much as the job itself. Harris County, home to Houston, has the largest such operation in the state. Precincts 4 and 5 have a combined 300 deputies, and, Lopez says, “they have everything as far as anything that pertains to law enforcement in the constable’s office there. They have marked units, they have SWAT, they have the whole nine yards.”
In Northeast Texas, far removed from the urban metropolis, the Constable’s office is a decidedly more modest affair. Most rural counties have one part-time constable per precinct. Usually there are no deputies, and constables need to use their own vehicles and even pay to dry clean their own uniforms. The job in counties like Fannin or Wood can be heavy on paperwork and light on SWAT raids. But Steven Bowser, constable in Wood County’s first precinct, says the job is never the same day twice.
“I back up the sheriff’s department, police departments , [I go] hunting for people that are lost,” Bowser says. “During the tornado we had at Lake Hawkins I was out spotting the storm and going in and doing search and rescue. You’re not defined by anything so specific that it stops you from doing what’s necessary at the time.”
And, of course, being a constable can get dangerous. Especially when you go to someone’s house to serve court papers or even evict them.
“When you go out to somebody’s house, you got to be alert,” says Bob Clemons, Fannin County’s Precinct 2 constable for the past 16 years. Clemons says he’s backed up the county sheriff’s office as an extra deputy, served papers, raided drug houses, and even helped the FBI with warrant arrests. But it’s not always people who pose risks.
“Probably dogs are the worst thing that I ever come up against,” he says. “I always carry my pepper spray with me whenever I go out and serve papers in the country.”
Clemons insists the pepper spray doesn’t hurt dogs, and that he wouldn’t want to hurt one anyway. In fact, county constables can be among a dog’s best friends. In mid-January, a raid by the SPCA and the Hunt County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office rescued dozens of animals, including dogs and chickens. Maura Davies, vice president of communications for the SPCA of Texas in Dallas, says Constable Terry Jones’s presence was essential to the operation.
“The constable’s office helps everywhere, but the Hunt County Constable helps so much for animals in distress,” Davies says. “They’re right there, first of all, to see what happens to animal’s firsthand. Oftentimes, they’re getting that first call from someone saying, ‘Hey, I think an animal’s in trouble.’”
County constable is a four-year elected office. That’s about the only thing constables’ offices in Texas’ 254 counties have in common. But wherever you are, getting the job of constable is merely a matter of running for it.
“A lot of folks believe that you need to be a peace officer before you run for constable, and that is not true,” Lopez says.
You don’t need to be a peace officer to GET the job. But you will need to become one to keep it. You have 200 and 70 days to comply with the requirements of a constable, if you’re not an existing peace officer in Texas. That mostly means finishing police academy training.
Constables’ deputies, however, do need to be certified peace officers to get hired.
But while constables have the same powers to arrest and ticket anyone, just as a city policeman would, Wood County Constable Steven Bowser says there’s a difference between “law enforcement officer” and “peace officer.”
“You have the opportunity to be a peace officer more than a law enforcement officer,” he says. “You can get in there and try and settle disputes before having to take law enforcement measures into your hands.”
Clemons of Fannin County says the proper attitude is key.
“Most constables are not politicians,” Clemons says. “They need to be a politician. They need to be able to go out and knock on all these doors and get acquainted with everybody.”
Being a politician is not merely a matter of getting to know voters, Clemons says. Being civil and polite can save your life ---- especially with what you’re carrying on your hip.
“The main thing is, you need an attitude that’s right for carrying a weapon,” he says.
Clemons says he’s only pulled his weapon once in 16 years and has never had to use it. He believes being polite, saying please and thank you, go a long way. Even when confronting someone in his house. But, there’s this:
“I can’t think of a good reason to kill somebody,” he says. “But if you’re threatened you need to be willing to do that.”
Like a sheriff, a constable’s is the final word in a law enforcement situation. But that doesn’t mean a constable answers to no one. Ultimately, constables answer to voters, who decide whether to keep a constable or replace him with someone else. But like any part of the government, there are checks and balances in place.:
“The ultimate authority in the county goes to the district attorney and the county attorney,” says Hunt County Judge John Horn.
There are also county judges, district judges and the justice of the peace, any of whom can hold a constable responsible for their actions (or inactions) in the execution of their duties, Horn says.
As an elected office, county constable is a partisan office ---- constables identify with a specific political party for election. Yet constables have no legislative powers. They cannot make laws or enact policies. So why is the position partisan? Lopez says, that’s just the way Texas wrote it.
“That’s just the way the constitution was established back in 1876,” Lopez says. “The same process is established for JPs, same process is established for commissioners precinct. That’s just the way the constitution is.”
To change that, he says, would require a major effort.
“They’ll have to change the constitution,” he says. “That’s all there is to it.”
Even though there is so much more to it.