What's a Constable to Do?

Candidates clash over job descriptions in Precinct 3 and 5 contests

Travis County's constables run the judicial-branch cop shop; their deputies are the walking beat of civil process, the patrollers of truants and Class C misdemeanants, and the lasso-ers of deadbeat dads. It's an underappreciated job, but a necessary one. But while that defined, statutory mission is clear, the ideal role for the constable is still a source of tension and debate.

On one side there are traditional thinkers who believe the constabulary should stick to its single mission, do it efficiently, and leave it at that. But to varying degrees, each of the county's five offices have added to their mission by expanding into other community-related ventures – like school mentoring programs. This has led to disagreement within several of the offices – including Precinct 3 and Precinct 5, the two contested constable races on this fall's ballot – over how to shape the future of the constabulary.

In Precinct 3, Democrat Richard McCain, a former Mustang Ridge cop and deputy constable for precincts 4 and 5 who is state-certified in civil process, is facing GOP contender Thornton Keel to take over for departing Constable Drew McAngus, who failed to win the GOP nomination for sheriff. McCain says that he wants to make the office run more efficiently so that all judicial duties are accomplished by keeping deputies on the streets and having clerks perform research duties in the office. When the office runs efficiently, he said, there is no reason the office shouldn't expand its reach by aiding other law enforcement agencies with additional warrant service and by partnering with neighborhood groups and helping with school-zone speed patrols, among other activities. "Responsiveness should be a part of what we do," he said. "We need to do community partnering, tailored to what each community wants."

But Keel – brother of state Rep. Terry Keel and Judge Patrick Keel – says Precinct 3 hasn't been doing its main judicial job all that well and needs to focus on that first. "The job of the constable is to serve the justice of the peace office," he said. And right now, he said, there is not a "happy relationship" between Precinct 3 JP Melissa Goodwin and McAngus' office. "They don't give the priority they're supposed to" to the statutory workload, he said. "And they're doing more traditional law enforcement," like warrant service and patrolling. As a result, Keel said, there is a backlog of process and misdemeanor warrants waiting for service. (McCain disputes this, and says Keel doesn't have numbers to back up the assertion.) "We've got to return to the primary mission and keep up with the caseload," he said. As a "management consultant" with clients across the country (including several "political committees"), Keel says he has the management and administrative skills that Precinct 3 needs.

McCain says he is wary of Keel's intentions in running for the office – so far, he notes, Keel isn't even a licensed peace officer, which is required of constables. He wonders if Keel is interested in the constabulary or in poising himself for higher office. "I'm doing this because it is what I like," McCain said. (Keel is beginning peace officer training on Oct. 18, and will have his credentials ready to present to the Commissioners Court early next year – well within the time required under state law.)

Over in Precinct 5, incumbent Constable Bruce Elfant is facing a challenger whose vision of the office is akin to McCain's. GOP candidate Greg Papst, a former AISD cop and Precinct 5 deputy who is currently a reserve deputy for Precinct 3, believes that Elfant's office needs to be more aggressive in pursuing deadbeat dads. "There aren't enough deputies to take care of child support," he says. He said the office needs to do more warrant roundups and should team up with other law enforcement agencies to get the job done – the other agencies would help, Papst said, "but they've never really been asked." Papst agrees that the constable's statutory mission must be accomplished, but says it can be done quickly and efficiently, leaving time to help out on other things that communities like – such as school zone patrols. "If you reorganize the man-hours," he said, "there's time for a little more work."

Elfant, who has been Precinct 5 constable for 12 years, says he's proud of his office's work with the community. His family violence division (which Papst headed while in the office) was founded on his watch, as was the handicapped parking enforcement program, which uses volunteers to issue citations for parking violators (approximately 1,000 tickets each year, he said). But constables are "primarily judicial officers," he said, and that has to be job No. 1. "It is a different kind of policing." And there is a lot more the office could do to assist the court – like additional "personal service" of civil process and skip tracing – instead of moving into law enforcement activities already covered by the numerous police agencies headquartered in Austin. When a deputy constable sees a crime being committed, they should step in, he said. "Short of that, it should be left for the other agencies assigned to those missions."

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Election 2004, Constables, Bruce Elfant, Thornton Keel, Richard McCain, Greg Papst, Precinct 5, Precinct 3, Drew McAngus, election

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