The role of a constable differs based on who defines the position in McLennan County, especially when it comes to what weapons the elected leaders should carry.
While the area’s five constables are elected to office, their budget is under the control of another group of elected leaders: the commissioners court.
As county commissioners have worked through the 2018 budget in the past few weeks, they have denied requests from constables for money to purchase certain weapons.
The county’s only policy on employees carrying guns states licensed registered peace officers, which includes constables, can carry them, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said.
Constables perform various law enforcement functions, including issuing traffic tickets, serving warrants and civil papers, including subpoenas and temporary restraining orders, and acting as a bailiffs for justice of the peace courts, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
When Precinct 3 Constable David Maler requested $1,000 for two shotguns, $1,020 for two pistols, and $1,310 for two rifles, commissioners asked County Auditor Stan Chambers for a list of county-owned weapons each constable uses.
Precinct 1 Constable Walt Strickland’s office has six pistols and a 16-inch rifle. Precinct 2 Constable John Johnson’s office has four pistols. Maler’s office has two pistols. Precinct 4 Constable Stan Hickey’s office relies on personally owned weapons and has no county-owned weapons. Precinct 5 Constable Freddie Cantu’s office has two pistols.
Chambers said just like some provide their own vehicles, the constables can provide their own weapons.
Commissioners ultimately agreed to allow the funding for Maler to replace his aging pistols but did not to grant the money for the shotguns and rifles.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Ben Perry said he supported the purchase of shotguns, but not necessarily with the tactical semi-automatic rifles.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones said he wanted to know what kind of tactical situations constables face.
Perry said constables don’t serve papers with a shotgun, rifle and pistol on them. Constables can and do assist other law enforcement agencies on calls, he said. But those agencies have the more powerful weapons and the intelligence on the given situation, Perry said.
Constables are not supposed to have the same duties as sheriff’s deputies, for example, County Judge Scott Felton said. Constables do not have daily meetings with local law enforcement agencies about activity and tactical information, and therefore shouldn’t get involved in situations that may require rifles or shotguns, Felton said.
“There could be instances because they don’t have the knowledge of other agencies when an issue comes down that they actually get in there and cause more danger for the other law enforcement people,” Felton said.
A constable’s deputies should not have to carry their personal weapons and should be provided county-owned weapons, Precinct 1 Constable Walt Strickland said. Strickland sought money from commissioners for more firearms but faced pushback.
“My deputies’ safety is my business,” he said.
Nationwide, one constable has been killed every year since he was elected, Strickland said.
“Our job is not some figment of somebody’s imagination that we go out and serve papers and that’s all we do,” Strickland said. “I use my rifle all the time. It’s a better weapon than a pistol, and it’s very intimidating.”
Strickland said the commissioners have prevented him from providing his deputies with an essential tool to work the streets by denying money for rifles.
The Hewitt Police Department hasn’t needed much assistance from constables. It’s on the larger side of small agencies, Hewitt Police Chief Jim Devlin said. However, all of his officers all carry rifles, pistols and shotguns. Officers with the department are allowed to carry their own weapon as long as it is approved by the firearms instructor and the chief, Devlin said.
Officers responding to a bank robbery in Dallas several years ago were outgunned by the perpetrators, Devlin said. When he became chief in Hewitt, he immediately worked to get rifles for all his officers, he said.
“They’re so much more versatile in a situation for active shooters, any real major critical incident where a perimeter may be set further away and you may have to, hopefully not, you may have to take a long-distance shot. They are more accurate,” he said. “Because of the incidents such as active shooters and bank robberies, I believe it’s a piece of equipment officers need to have available to them should they have to use it.”
Felton said he’s starting to see the creation of an overlap between the constables’ offices and the sheriff’s department. Especially with Strickland’s office, efforts are underway to duplicate duties already in place at the sheriff’s office, Felton said.
McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara could not be reached for comment Friday.
Strickland said he has maintained the same budget level over the years.
Jones asked if Strickland requires officers to take tactical training.
The deputies go to the range almost every month, Strickland said.
Jones clarified and said he meant more than shooting at a piece of paper, but practicing real-life situations.
“We make them crawl, run, shoot behind barricades, teach them to shoot at multiple targets,” Strickland said. “Our training is probably the best in the county as far as our firearms.”
Lorena Police Chief Tom Dickson said constables are a great to help to the small department.
“For instance, we went to a funeral of an employee member, and we have to leave and we need coverage, I can call Walt and he’ll send a deputy constable out to patrol the city until we can get free on whatever we’re doing,” he said.
Dickson said the weapons officers carry while on duty have evolved in the past 25 years as bad guys become better armed than law enforcement.
“If you’re out on the side of the road and somebody’s shooting at you as an officer with a rifle, you want to meet that type of force being used against you with the same or more,” he said. “A patrol rifle is a development over time that’s just become a necessary evil for law enforcement to have.”
Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton said the department appreciates any assistance they get from other law enforcement agencies.
Waco police also all carry rifles, he said.
“It’s important for officers to be able to match the firepower we’re seeing on the streets,” he said. “The weapons we carry are based on the weapons the bad guys are carrying.”