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Value of Tenn. constables debated
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — 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 11 no longer have constables.

Whether it's due to an increase in sheriff's offices' efficiency, problems with a few troublemakers, or a clash with law enforcement and residents, constables' numbers during 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.

County commissioners decide whether they'll have constables. 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.

They don't have a superior.

Some sheriff's and police departments appreciate them.

Some don't.

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.

Locally, Knox, Blount, Roane, Loudon and Morgan 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.

It started 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. "My job was in a building where they made nuclear reactors. That constable was my foreman."

So in 1978, the state began abolishing constables.

Davidson and Shelby counties came first that year followed by Knox and Hamilton.

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

In the 1980s, Blount, Meigs and Pickett counties nixed constables.

The pattern continued into the 1990s with Morgan, Loudon, Bledsoe, Rhea and Cumberland counties.

In recent years, Roane has axed its constables; Claiborne will do the same next year.

Despite the declining trend, constables remain popular in other East Tennessee counties.

Sullivan County leads the pack with 24 of them. Neighboring Carter County has 16.

Locally, Jefferson County has 11 and Sevier County trails with 10.

Grainger has eight. Cocke, Hamblen, Scott and Union each have seven. Anderson, Campbell, Claiborne and McMinn each have five. 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 struck a high-profile pose reminiscent of legendary McNairy County Sheriff Buford Pusser, subject of the film "Walking Tall." Just like Pusser, Patton claimed he was fighting corruption.

Patton was indicted on reckless endangerment and misconduct charges stemming from incidents in June 2007 through February 2009.

Although his charges were later 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.

In Loudon County, where constables disappeared by 1998, the troublemaker was Erroll Bickford.

"Erroll probably was the straw that broke the camel's back here," said Loudon County Sheriff Tim Guider, who's been in office since 1990.

Bickford ran the streets in the 1990s. He bought a Mustang before being elected, slapped a star on the side, Guider said, and used the car to pull over people to pay the car off.

"He was a good guy, friendly, but he used to sit on Interstate 75 and just grab people," Guider said. "Loudon County was starting to get a name that it was a speed trap. The County Commission said we don't need this reputation, so they moved legislation to abolish it."

Last Guider heard, Bickford moved out of state several years ago and has since died.

"There are just some who have gone above and beyond their authority, and it's given them a bad name and can give the whole law enforcement that name," Guider said. "I'm sure there's a place for them and (they) have been beneficial to other sheriffs throughout the years. I know there's a few counties here that have them locally and need them. I guess you're as good as your reputation."

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

The five who remain in office were permitted to continue service until their terms expire next year. After Sept. 1, 2012, they'll be gone.

According to a resolution sponsored by Commissioner Glen Bowing: "Improvements have been made over many years in the capability, professionalism and efficiency of the office of sheriff regarding law enforcement and the service of civil process to the point that the office of constable is no longer necessary."

But Sheriff David Ray said the move also stemmed from incidents involving a former constable, Roy Widner, and a current constable, Ronnie Joe Hurst, who represents District 2.

Widner was indicted by a Claiborne County grand jury on a sexual battery charge in 2008 for allegedly grabbing a woman's breast at a gas station in New Tazewell, Tenn.

He resigned his post in January 2010. In March 2010, the case was dismissed against him, court papers show.

Ray said that in January 2009, Hurst wrongfully arrested a couple, stopped at a service station for cigarettes and "showed them off like show dogs."

Their cases were dismissed in court, but Ray said the couple sued the sheriff's office alleging it failed to train Hurst, 48. The lawsuit was dismissed against the sheriff's office because Ray said it was not responsible for training constables.

"There's just too many issues with them," Ray said. "Some of them are violating people's rights without any knowledge of what they're doing. The bottom line is there is no legislative action being taken for mandatory training for them."

There are no guidelines to govern their qualifications to enforce laws and that is why they sometimes butt heads with others, Ray said.

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.

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 numerous 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.

But many constables often take other courses in addition to the required 40 hours of in-service training.

It's not easy to unseat them.

Other than voting them out of office, an ouster lawsuit is the only way they can be removed from their posts, said Cocke County Attorney Carter Moore.

"That's what the county commissioners and sheriffs don't like. They can't complain to anyone or do anything with these constables," said Tennessee Constable Council President Larry Rains. "They love them as long as they do good, but when they do bad, that's when they want to abolish them."

Rains said that is the wrong response.

"When you have a bad sheriff you don't do that; you just get another one in there. And, being that the economy is the way it is, free law enforcement, you'd think they'd be jumping at it."

So officials with TCA and the Tennessee Constable Council — entities authorized by the state to provide in-service training for constables — have suggested a disciplinary board.

"We need one. We've asked for one — kind of like POST, that decides if they should be able to continue. You can't throw them out of office but you can remove their powers," Rains said. "That way it wouldn't take too long."

Campbell County Mayor William Baird, who said he's not aware of issues with constables there, commended the idea.

"That would be a positive step if they want to continue to have constables," Baird said. "It would be nice to have something uniform across the state."

In some counties, constables are out of sight, out of mind, and people question why they have them.

"I think some just like to walk around and say they're a constable," said Scott County Election Commission Administrator Gabe Lowe. "I hear some do a lot of neighborhood watches, but there's some you don't hear from. As far as writing tickets, I'm not even sure they've done that up here."

"It's varied opinions, and that is why some counties have been doing away with them," Scott County Sheriff Steve Cross

In Cross' jurisdiction (Scott County), like in a handful of others in East Tennessee, there are seven constables.

Only two have been active, court records show, serving summons. They have the power to arrest and cite, but so far this year none of their seven constables has.

"One of the problems you have with constables is most of them have full-time jobs, and it's hard for some of them to get out and write tickets and appear in court," Cross said. "A lot of time you'll miss a full day of work for court."

Regardless, Cross, who was elected last year, said he hasn't had any issues with them.

Some have been useful, he said, helping with security at ball games, attending county commission meetings or working parades.

"As far as, are they going to be here forever? I don't know. In the end that's up to the county commission."

Some sheriffs hope they stay.

In Cocke County, records show at least four of their seven constables stay busy performing services.

"As short handed as we are, we're happy to have them," said Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes.

In Hamblen County, Sheriff Esco Jarnagin said he doesn't know of any plans to nix any of their seven constables.

"They do a good job," he said. "I don't get any complaints. They're out all hours of the day and night patrolling streets, trying to do the right thing."

He'd like to use them more too, but scheduling is often a hindrance because many have full-time jobs, Jarnagin said.

"We're trying to get something going for the constables and us to be a win-win situation," he said. "I'm considering asking for their service to take people with mental issues to Knoxville, for example, people on suicide watch who need to go to Lakeshore."

In Sevier County, Sheriff Ron Seals said he doesn't see constables disappearing anytime soon.

"They're not big on going out and writing speeding tickets here, but we work well with the 10 we have," Seals said.

He said they step up to help his 95 officers who cover a county with 92,000 residents.

"We don't have the manpower we'd like so, for example, if we have a major crime, they assist us with patrol in the area where the crime occurred so the officers can deal with the scene."

Although he appreciates them, he agrees he'd like to see enhanced qualifications to make it into office.

"Now all you gotta do is fill out the paperwork and get elected," Seals said.

That's something Sevier County Constable William Seagle said he is working to change.

"The greatest problem is people are getting elected with no law enforcement experience," said Seagle, a former sheriff's deputy of 12 years who represents District 5. "You shouldn't stick a gun and badge on someone who doesn't know the law."

"Constables who've got in trouble since I've been in office have been good old guys in the community that everyone likes," he said. "They elect them to the office and they have no training to know what to do and, of course, make a mistake.

"Maybe a lawsuit is filed, and the next thing they know, the county wants them out. That's why I'm pushing to get legislation passed that would require constables to have three to five years of law enforcement experience and a psychological evaluation, which police officers have to do."

Jim Gibbs, on the TCA board of directors, said constables often face roadblocks in their quest for more education.

"We have precisely the education the state legislators tell us to. That's who dictates our education. If they want us to have more education, they have to change the law," said Gibbs, a constable in Cannon County. "But in the meantime, constables who want to increase their education are rebuffed. We go to neighboring counties like Warren to get more education, but our sheriff here won't help us out and POST simply won't let us in to a class."

In Union County Chad Faulkner, who represents District 7, said he's working to make his kind more accountable.

Faulkner, who also is a Knox County Sheriff's Office deputy, said he doesn't want to see the post fade away.

"I want us to stay, especially in rural communities where we are needed most," he said.

In the end, Rains said, it's unfortunate constables are disappearing. "People don't remember the good things constables do," Rains said. "If they have one that has a problem, here we go, let's get rid of them. But you can have a sheriff arrested out of one county and they don't bother the other sheriffs.

"It doesn't matter what profession you get into whether it's car salesmen, police officers, you're gonna have some bad apples. But most constables ... want to do good. They want to help the community."