One of the creakier things about county government is that elected department heads have only so much control in carrying out sworn duties, at least as they might see them. Consider the dustup over McLennan County constables and whether county taxpayers should fund the purchase of more firepower for them.
To our thinking, that depends on what constables’ duties are — and that’s where the county hits a conundrum.
Republican County Commissioners Ben Perry and Will Jones, diligent in looking out for local taxpayers, raise honest, legitimate questions about whether constables need some of the weaponry requested to fulfill their duties. Perry — a former patrolman and detective — is especially well-positioned to scrutinize such requests. To his credit, he has done so during county budget sessions.
For instance, when Precinct 3 Constable David Maler requested $1,000 for two shotguns, $1,020 for two pistols and $1,310 for two rifles, the court put on the fiscal brakes and opted to replace only the constable’s aging pistols. Perry correctly notes that a constable doesn’t ordinarily serve papers with a shotgun, a rifle and a pistol on hand.
And when the subject of purchasing tactical weapons for constables was raised, Commissioner Jones said he wanted to know what kind of tactical situations constables ordinarily face. And, finally, Republican County Judge Scott Felton noted that constables are not supposed to have the same duties as sheriff’s deputies — and that he sees more and more overlap in their duties.
Constables might well argue the point with the judge: From a fair reading of the law, constable duties are pretty open-ended, no doubt a reflection of constables’ frontier-era origins when Texas counties near and far, large and small, faced widely different challenges. On the other hand, their primary duties — at least as we’ve seen them over many years — involve serving important legal papers, serving as bailiffs for justice-of-the-peace courts, occasionally assisting sheriff’s deputies and undertaking patrols.
Given the commissioners court has been extremely generous in expanding the sheriff’s staffing and addressing his equipment needs, Judge Felton has a point about overlap, ever the enemy of fiscal prudence. And with occasional calls statewide for phasing out Texas constables, it’s shrewd for today’s constables to work in close concert with other officials.
With residents complaining about property taxes and criminal elements employing alarming firepower on our streets, it behooves the sheriff, commissioners court, local police chiefs and constables to earnestly discuss how constables best fit into evolving 21st-century law enforcement in McLennan County, particularly given Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican state legislators’ demand for more restrained county expenses statewide. Once a decision is made, commissioners can help bolster this through their power of the purse strings — and constables can more confidently integrate themselves into the hard law-enforcement work that needs to be done for the betterment of all.