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Serving their community
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Tennessee constables have been in the news lately, but have not been presented in a very positive light in some cases. That’s why Warren County constables Jason Dodson and Junior Pennington want to make the public aware of the responsibilities of these elected law enforcement officers.
“Most of the public doesn’t understand what we do,” said Pennington, noting he was in the same boat initially. “Up until I was appointed constable three years ago, I didn’t understand what a constable was. I thought he just helped out. I didn’t think he had any legal powers. A lot of the public still doesn’t know we have the power to arrest and write tickets. It happens to me all the time that when I stop somebody they’ll say ‘Well, you’re just a constable. You don’t have the right to pull me over.’ And I’ll explain to them, ‘Yes, I do.’ Constables were some of the earliest police officers in world history.”
Dodson says constables provide support to the other arms of law enforcement, like the police and sheriff’s departments.
“We’re not trying to bulk up and make ourselves look like we’re above anybody else,” Dodson said. “We just want people to know we’re here to help them, and to help protect them from those who cause trouble, like drug users and drunk drivers.”
Dodson says constables are the only elected officials in Tennessee who don’t receive a regular salary.
“We have to supply all of our own equipment. We buy our own cars, our uniforms, our guns,” Dodson said. “Basically we’re free help to the county. There’s no taxpayer expense.”
So why do they basically donate their time and money?
“I enjoy the work,” said Dodson.
“I worked in Putnam County with the sheriff’s department for four or five years,” continued Dodson. “It was part time and the benefits up there weren’t as good as my full-time job here, but I still wanted to be in law enforcement. So this was an opportunity to keep my job and be a patrol officer.”
Pennington says he was influenced by law enforcement personnel as a young man.
“I had a lot of good people help me when I was younger,” Pennington said. “That kind of put me on the straight and narrow, so if I can do that for somebody else and help them out, I want to. It’s just a good way to give back to the community that’s been so good to me.”
Tennessee constables are sworn and bonded peace officers of the Tennessee judicial system with full power of arrest under Tennessee Code Annotated title 8, chapter 10. They are charged with keeping the peace and with the enforcement of the laws of the state, counties and cities.
In order to be certified as a law enforcement officer with arrest powers, they are required to participate in 40 hours of in-service training and to be range-qualified each year by a certified firearms instructor prior to carrying a firearm in an official capacity. Most constables have obtained a Department of Safety Handgun Carry Permit in addition to their constable weapons training.
Both men say the majority of constables in the county have experience which helps qualify them for the job.
“We have war veterans, people who have been in law enforcement before,” Dodson said. “I’m also a volunteer firefighter with the Campaign-Rock Island Fire Department.”
There are 12 districts in Warren County with a constable in each district. Dodson and Pennington say local constables work hard to maintain a good working relationship with Sheriff Jackie Matheny and provide support to his department whenever they are needed.
“He’s come to our meetings before and has gone around and shook our hands and told us how much he appreciates our efforts,” Dodson said, noting constables have a lot of respect for full-time law enforcement personnel.
“We’re just here to provide help when it’s needed,” Dodson said.
“Our basic goals are to help keep our own communities safe and to assist the Sheriff’s Department, Police Department and Highway Patrol when it’s needed,” Pennington said.
“Like during a windstorm when they have a lot of trees down and there’s other calls that are maybe more life threatening, then we’ll stay where the trees are down to direct traffic and help out,” Dodson said.
Both men point out a number of constables have given their lives in the line of duty, including Constable Thomas Jefferson York, the son of U.S. Army Sgt. Alvin C. York, who received the Medal of Honor. Another famous constable was Buford Pusser, who was elected constable before he was elected sheriff of McNairy County.