Via Harris County Precinct 1

Editorial: Defund the Constables

The office of constable may have made sense back when Texas was a sprawling frontier. Instead, constables basically now run their own little personal fiefdoms.

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A version of this story ran in the March / April 2021 issue.

From the March/April 2021 issue.

Texas Republicans’ longtime demand that cities shrink their budgets ran into a thin blue line last year. Austin called their bluff. The city passed a plan to cut or reallocate about $150 million from its police budget in August following nationwide protests for criminal justice reform—which included calls that cities “defund the police.” In response, state leaders have proposed punishing localities that try to trim their law enforcement finances. Some have even discussed a state takeover of Austin police. No need to sort out the inconsistencies. A liberal city did something, so now Texas Republicans want to do the opposite. 

But what if there was a way to compromise—a solution that didn’t quite make everyone happy but offered a good-faith effort? Activists could shrink the footprint of law enforcement while leaving city departments untouched. Republicans could protect the detectives and beat cops who do real police work while trimming the size of government—and maybe even cut property taxes, too.

Texas would just have to eliminate constables.  

Each Texas county has anywhere from one to eight elected constables, who are charged with serving civil writs and acting as bailiffs for justices of the peace, including by enforcing evictions. But mission creep over the past several decades has constables acting more and more like regular police. Freeways across the state are patrolled by constable deputies who pull over speeders, arrest people for contraband, and generally support law enforcement agencies. My own local constable in Harris County likes to post pictures on Instagram when deputies snag baggies of marijuana—keeping the local Whataburger safe from late-night taquito orders.

Harris County also has a unique contract deputy program that allows local neighborhoods to hire taxpayer-subsidized constables for extra security. More than 2 million people live in unincorporated Harris County with no city police department to call their own, so they often call constables instead.

But there’s nothing about the job that couldn’t be done by sheriff’s deputies. The office of constable may have made sense back when Texas was a sprawling frontier. When the office was first enshrined in the state constitution, constables were charged with putting down “riots, routs, affrays, fighting, and unlawful assemblies.” The Handbook of Texas points out that constables were the most active law enforcement officials in many counties during early statehood.

Times change. Now their work overlaps with any number of better-equipped, better-trained law enforcement agencies. Many constable departments don’t even have formalized civil service. Instead, constables basically run their own little personal fiefdoms. The only real oversight happens on Election Day, so the proliferation of scandal should be no surprise. In 2010, two Dallas County constables were indicted and later convicted on charges relating to campaign fraud. In 2016, a Harris County constable landed in hot water after his office was caught unlawfully destroying 21,000 pieces of evidence. In 2020, a Bexar County constable was indicted on felony charges of aggravated perjury and tampering with evidence.

Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research came to the unsurprising conclusion that consolidating constable and sheriff services could save “considerable administrative expenses.” Duplicated administrative expenses alone cost Harris County taxpayers roughly $47 million a year. That money could be spent hiring more sheriff patrols, expanding county social services, or simply cutting property taxes. 

In fact, back when inefficient government agencies slurping up property taxes was a Republican bugbear instead of golden calf, conservatives used to routinely aim their ire at constables. Former state Senator Bob Duncan, a Republican, once questioned why Texas law still required the offices to exist. 

Three small rural counties—Mills, Reagan, and Roberts—eliminated their constables in 1995 through a constitutional amendment. The San Antonio Express-News editorial board has called on the Legislature to bring up the question statewide. At least a dozen other states have eliminated the position of constable.

In a time of tight budgets, high property taxes, and scrutiny about law enforcement, a constitutional amendment to eliminate constables statewide could be the rare issue that unites the left and right. Criminal justice advocates could claim victory in eliminating unnecessary law enforcement agencies. Fiscal conservatives could celebrate eliminating an unnecessary layer of government. And “Back the Blue” types would have the opportunity to redirect funding to officers patrolling streets and detectives closing cases.

Plus, it gives state officials an excuse to lord their power over local governments. And in the end, isn’t that what really matters?  

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