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2012-11-15

So, what is a constable & what do they do? - Part I

By Rod Chalmers Precinct 4 Constable

(Editor's note: in the first of this two-part series, Precinct 4 Constable explores historical aspects of his law en¬forcement profession. Next week, he will discuss present day constables.)
When we, as responsible American citizens, go to the polls to elect our respective parties' national, state and county officials, one of the items you will occasionally see on the ballot will be for the candidates for "constable" in a specific precinct.
I've been asked by numerous citizens: "Just what is a constable, anyway?" Good question, and we constables are glad you asked. Seems appropriate to try to use our media to answer those who asked - and those who didn't, but still wonder.
Citizens need to know what's expected of their elected county officials if they're going to make a responsible decision as to whether they want to elect or re-elect a candidate to that position. So, let's start with a little bit of history as to how this "governmental" office came about - aw, c'mon, it won't be that bad!
The position of constable was originally a high office under both the French and English kings. This official led the royal army, was responsible for all funcions (sic.) pertaining to arms and regulated all matters of chivalry. The word constable is derived from the old French word "comestable," which is derived from the Latin "comes stabuli," meaning, "count of the stables' or master of the horse."
The first mention of the constable as a law enforcement officer appears in 1252, when, by virtue of a law enacted that year, constables were charged with ensuring that all free men had the proper arms for maintaining the peace. (Hey, this is a good thing!)
Among the constables' traditional duties were to keep the king's peace in the district, to arrest and imprison of¬fenders, to obey the sheriff, to obey the justice of the peace, to follow the hue and cry - I always wondered where that came from - to serve warrants, to keep the watch and ward (do what?), to keep a roster of the watchmen and see that they were vigilant and alert, to act as overseers of the highways (you mean, even enforce traffic regula¬tions?) and to perform other administrative duties.
The broad base of the English police institutions and experience were used to construct police systems in the United States and several other countries. Rural America, incorporating most of the colonial territory, became the province of the sheriff and the constable. The transfer was accomplished with the structure of those offices virtually intact.
Originally, the constable had responsibility for law enforcement in towns, while the sheriff assumed charge of policing the counties. At first these high offices were awarded to large landowners who were loyal to the king - yeah, they had "politics" in those days, too. After the American Revolution, however, these positions were filled by popular elections.
Stephen F. Austin included constables in the 1823 proposed Codes of Civil and Criminal Regulations, later ap¬proved by the Mexican government for the administration of justice within Austin's colonies in Texas. The first two constables were appointed in Austin's colony that same year. These men, who were the forerunners of the Texas Rangers, were ordered to travel wherever there was Indian action against the settlers and to protect them.
In 1826, Austin appointed a sheriff, a constable and a justice of the peace for the colony. The constitution of the Republic of Texas, signed on March 17, 1836, (wait a minute, that's right after the Alamo, and before the Battle of San Jacinto!) established that a "sufficient number of constables" be elected, and the office of constable was included in the Texas Constitutions of 1845, 1869, and 1876.
To this day, sheriffs and constables are referred to as "constitutional officers," while all of the other cops are "statutory officers," which means that they are created by acts of the legislature.
For those of you who like trivia, the term "cop" actually stands for "constables on patrol." Over the years, some familiar figures have spent part of their law enforcement careers as constables or deputy constables, including Virgil and Wyatt Earp, John Selman, "Wild Bill" Hickok and Texas Ranger and US Marshall Clint Peoples - hey, I actually knew that guy.