Constables: The Rodney Dangerfields of Police Work

Constables forced to defend their jobs

At first blush, it seemed that all Williamson Co. constables would end up as empty-handed casualties in the annual county budget war. But as the meat-grinding process has played out over the past two weeks, only one constable, Precinct 1's Gary Griffin -- long a political thorn in the side of the Commissioners Court -- was left with the emptiest pockets. The commissioners' tightfisted fiscal strike against Griffin likely stems from his ongoing legal battle against the court for cutting his budget by 70% in mid-2005. The lawsuit is pending in Austin's 3rd Court of Appeals.

In the new 2008 budget, Griffin was denied his funding request for a court security officer, and he was given zero dollars for law enforcement and communications equipment. "I won't even be able to buy a flashlight battery," Griffin told the Chronicle. Nor will he be able to equip his cars with defibrillators as he had planned, he said.

For a while it looked as though all the constables would end up in the same boat as Griffin. County Judge Dan Gattis' initial recommendations, discussed at a July 24 budget hearing, would have denied the constables any increases in personnel or operational funds.

The constables each told the court they desperately needed increases in resources because a "tsunami" in their workload, as Precinct 3 Constable Bobby Gutierrez put it, will hit once a monetary cap on lawsuits handled by justice courts doubles from $5,000 to $10,000, effective next month.

As in previous budget battles, each of the four constables again appeared before the court to define and defend their elected positions. "I'm proud to be a constable. If not for us ... victims would go without justice," Precinct 2 Constable Dale Vannoy told the court. (Commissioners might also wish to consult the Texas Constitution, the Texas Statutes Code of Criminal Procedure, and their own website, www.wilco.org/constables, for further understanding of the office.)

In justifying his proposed cuts in surveillance equipment, Gattis seemed to question the legal powers given constables, when sheriff's deputies are equipped to handle law-enforcement matters. "The court needs to decide -- do you want to equip the constables to do traffic?" But then he added, "I haven't any argument you are a full-fledged police officer."

Constable Gutierrez testified next, saying: "It's unreasonable to assume Sheriff James Wilson can handle everything in the entire county. ... If we can catch it, we need to be able to clean it." Commissioner Lisa Birkman responded, "I've never, ever seen a constable write a ticket in my neighborhood." But Griffin quickly corrected that assumption. "We do write tickets in Precinct 1," he told Birkman. "In fact, I think your husband was stopped, Lisa, as was Judge [John] Doerfler, by a deputy constable." Birkman brushed off his response, noting that the traffic stop was "only a warning."

Griffin continued, "I don't come to your office and talk about the landfill ... or the dog pound," he said of the county's current trouble spots. "I don't tell the judge how to judge. You've gotta give us some trust. The voters did," Griffin said. "Why are constables perceived as second-class?"

The court's miserly stance shifted slightly on July 30, when budget analyst Ashlie Koenig recommended giving two of the constables (in the less controversial Precincts 2 and 3) one deputy apiece and reclassifying some staff positions. But she said she would recommend denying personnel to Griffin and the Precinct 4 Constable Marty Ruble. Asked to explain her decision, Koenig said, "At this point in time, a large portion of Griffin's work is done by Precinct 4." Both Griffin and Ruble vehemently denied those assertions. Griffin's warrant-clearance rate of 80% is "phenomenal," Ruble said. County figures in the last year also show Griffin's deputies generating an impressive amount of revenue for the county.

To Griffin, the main focus should not be how much money a law-enforcement agency funnels to county coffers but how well they perform as public servants. Last weekend, for example, Griffin provided security, at no charge, for a national girl's softball tourney in Round Rock. Without a WilCo EMS or sheriff's presence at the park that day, Griffin, as first responder, personally rushed an injured player to the hospital -- just as any other "full-fledged" police officer would have done.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Williamson Co. constables, Williamson Co., constables, Gary Griffin, Lisa Birkman, Dan Gattis

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