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Editorial: Does Tennessee really need constables?

Editorial Board • Oct 14, 2019 at 6:00 PM

Although their primary responsibility is to serve civil warrants, Tennessee’s elected constables have the same authority under the state’s judicial system as other law enforcement officers, including the ability to make arrests.

But of late, local constables are making news not for conducting arrests but for being the subject of one:

— Oct. 2: A Johnson County constable is charged with child abuse and neglect.

— Oct. 1: A Sullivan County constable is indicted for signing off on court documents that he did not serve.

— Oct. 1: A Washington County constable is indicted on auto burglary and theft charges.

— Aug. 12: A Sullivan County constable is indicted on multiple charges after allegedly lying about serving court documents.

— Feb. 8: A Hawkins County constable faces felony charges for conducting a traffic stop with blue lights and detaining his suspect before he took office.

That’s just this year. Last year a Carter County constable was indicted for aggravated assault and oppression and a Jefferson County constable was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for conspiring to distribute oxycodone.

Clearly, part of the problem is the lack of qualification to run for constable.

No police or sheriff’s department would hire someone off the street for law enforcement duties. But all it takes to be on the ballot for constable is to be 21, a non-felon, have at least a GED, and be able to read and write.

Until last year, you could strap on a gun and start patrolling the streets, and by the end of the year complete a week of law enforcement training, and you were good to go for life. Fortunately, state Rep. Timothy Hill, R-Blountville, and state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, crafted legislation requiring constables to take part in training every year. Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill in May 2018.

But is more training needed? For that matter, are Tennessee constables needed? Virginia got rid of them years ago. In Tennessee, it’s up to individual counties as to whether they have constables. Sullivan County has 24.

Another part of the problem is that constables don’t report to anyone. Since they are elected, they have no supervisor. They must provide their own uniforms, vehicles and fuel, and they receive no salary. They are compensated only for delivering legal documents and similar endeavors.

Perhaps state law should be changed requiring elected constables to fall under the authority of the county sheriff’s department. They could continue to be paid only for delivering service but would report to department officers as to their performance. Considering how many of them are on the wrong side of the law, we think it’s worth a thought.

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