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Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

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