published Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Value of constables debated

By Natalie Neysa Alund

Knoxville News Sentinel

KNOXVILLE -- Leslie Wakefield patrols Anderson County in a vehicle with an official insignia on the door and flashing blue lights.

He carries a gun and a badge; he writes tickets and can arrest people.

Yet, he doesn't work for the sheriff's office or a police department.

Wakefield is one of what could be a dying breed. He's a constable -- one of about 400 elected public officials across the state.

Constables have had a long and storied past in Tennessee law enforcement. Their post has even added to crime-fighting jargon -- the acronym COP stands for Constable on Patrol.

Yet, a News Sentinel survey of 35 East Tennessee counties shows that many no longer have constables.

Whether it's because of an increase in sheriff's offices' efficiency, problems with a few troublemakers or a clash with law enforcement and residents, constables' numbers in the past three decades are dwindling.

"I'd like to see them remain and come back in counties that have abolished them," said Wakefield, who represents District 4. "We're free law enforcement; the county isn't liable for us and most of us have our own insurance. We're just a good thing to have for the people."

Constables, who serve two- or four-year terms, are public officials who have police powers in some counties. They can cite or arrest and may serve court summonses. They operate at no cost to the county by providing their own uniforms, vehicles and equipment.

Although they're not salaried, they get a state-based fee for those services that comes out of court costs paid by defendants.

Their mission, according to the Tennessee Constable website, is to "provide additional law enforcement presence and assist, and supplement the sheriff's office and police departments." They are also at the disposal of fire departments, rescue squads and state and federal agencies.

About nine of Georgia's 159 counties, including Whitfield County, have constables. But those in the Peach State are not elected, and they do not have police powers.

Like Whitfield Constable Thomas Hall, 61, the constables in Georgia serve magistrate judges, who hire constables.

"We serve all civil process [documents], and we execute warrants written by the judges here and execute eviction notices and writs, and we secure courtrooms," Hall said.

He said constables in Georgia can arrest people only under the authority of the judge. Under a 2005 opinion from the Georgia attorney general, the constables also must be in the presence of a judge to make an arrest.

In Tennessee, county commissioners decide whether they'll have constables, and those constables are not confined to the district in which they're elected. They have powers throughout the state, except for those counties where they have been abolished.

Tennessee tales

Constables have served Tennessee residents for about 200 years, according to information from the Tennessee Constable Association. Records show they used to exist in every county.

Roane, Loudon, Knox, Blount and Morgan counties have abolished constables. By next year, they'll be gone in Claiborne County.

In 1969, lawmakers began stripping constables of police powers in some counties, starting with the state's four most populous counties: Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton.

Legislators who pushed for the move accused some constables of abusing their powers, citing "fee-grabbing and shakedowns." One lawmaker in 1969 said a Hamilton County constable "had made $800 over a four-week period just for arresting drunks."

"That's what got the fire a-flying. He was stopping everybody," said Meigs County Mayor Garland Lankford, who worked for Combustion Engineering in Chattanooga at the time.

So in 1978, the state began abolishing constables. Davidson and Shelby counties came first, followed by Hamilton and Knox.

Those first four abolishments were made mandatory by state lawmakers. But in the years that followed, county commissions throughout the state were allowed to decide whether to keep constables. They also could decide to decrease constables' policing powers.

In the 1980s, Blount, Meigs and Pickett counties nixed constables. The pattern continued in the 1990s with Morgan, Loudon, Bledsoe, Rhea and Cumberland counties.

Despite the declining trend, constables remain popular in other East Tennessee counties. McMinn has five, and Monroe and Polk each have three.

Roane County axed its constables in August 2010 shortly after a steamy controversy with one of its own -- Mark Patton.

He was kicked out of the office after a judge ruled he had exhibited a "willful and knowing" pattern of misconduct. Patton was indicted on reckless endangerment and misconduct charges stemming from incidents in June 2007 through February 2009.

Although his charges later were dismissed, court documents alleged Patton endangered the lives of two family members of Kingston Police Chief Jim Washam, using his car aggressively in an attempt to run their vehicle off the road. He also was accused of reckless endangerment regarding actions against the daughter and grandchildren of Roane County Sheriff Jack Stockton.

Claiborne County, the latest to nix constables, voted in March 2010 to abolish them.

Under the law, constables must be 21, be able to read and write, and be a qualified voter in the district where they run. They cannot have a felony conviction or an armed forces discharge other than honorable.

Those with police powers must participate in 40 hours of in-service training and must be range-qualified each year by a certified firearms instructor. And those who operate an emergency vehicle must pass an emergency vehicle operation course annually.

Law enforcement officers have a far greater amount of minimum training required (400 hours) and many pre-employment requirements, including a psychological evaluation, before being hired, said Christopher Garrett with the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which certifies officers across the state.

Staff writer Pam Sohn contributed to this story.

AREA CONSTABLES

  • Tennessee counties with constables: McMinn, Monroe, Polk, Bradley, Coffee, Franklin, Grundy, Marion, Sequatchie, Warren

  • Georgia counties with constables: Whitfield, Gordon

Sources: www.tennesseeconstablecouncil.org, www.georgiacivilprocess.org

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