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Tennessee should rein in constables

Johnson City Press • Feb 15, 2020 at 6:00 AM

Yet again, we learned this week that two constables in our area are facing criminal charges related to their law enforcement positions.

In Sullivan County, a grand jury indicted the lawmen on charges of assault and official misconduct after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation looked into an incident that occurred when they tried to serve civil paperwork at a Kingsport business.

It’s not the first time constables have run afoul of the law, and it won’t be the last, as long as these elected officers are allowed to operate with too little training and even less supervision.

To run for constable, a person need only live in the district in which they’ll be elected, collect 25 signatures of registered voters, have a high school diploma or GED and never have been convicted of a felony or received a dishonorable discharge from the military.

A few hundred votes later, a person with no criminal justice experience or education, no mental or physical assessment and no supervisor could have all the powers afforded to law enforcement officers in the state, including the abilities to make arrests and perform traffic stops, to wear a badge and gun and to drive a marked law enforcement vehicle.

Thanks to a 2018 law, constables are required to undergo 40 hours of in-service training each year, but that’s woefully inadequate compared to the responsibility that comes with the power they hold.

Proponents of keeping the office say constables help small police and sheriff’s departments by performing minor law enforcement duties, but they don’t seem essential.

The lion’s share of constables’ duties is serving civil process, like summons to court and subpoenas. Tennessee authorizes anyone older than 18 to be a process server, however, without the need to be armed and the power to make arrests.

Constables also perform traffic control and security escorts, but many sheriff’s departments maintain reserve deputies for those purposes.

The office of constable is a vestigial structure left over from an antiquated colonial government. Virginia abolished constables in 1976 with little effect on law and order. More than a dozen Tennessee counties have decided they don’t need them either.

It’s past time for the state to address the problem.

It would be easiest to abolish the office altogether, but some leaders may want to keep constables because of a sense of tradition.

If the state keeps constables, either remove their powers to take away people’s freedom or put them under the training and supervision of qualified law enforcement officers.

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