The election is less than two weeks away and offices large and small are on the ballot. The smallest office of all might be county constable.
Constable is one of four offices specifically set out in the state’s 1890 Constitution as peace officers. The others are sheriff, jailer and coroner. In practice, jailers rarely make arrests other than inmates who commit a crime while already in jail, and coroners rarely make arrests at all.
Most constables are not trained, but they often drive fully marked police cars, wear uniforms and guns, and make arrests just like fulltime peace officers.
But while the salalries of sheriffs and jailers here range from $80,000 a year for a new official to more than $93,000 for a veteran official, and the coroner makes more than $21,000 a year, constables receive a salary of $4,300.91 a year. The county provides a radio, but they provide all their own equipment, including their own car, and pay their own insurance. Top that with a perpetual movement to rid the state of constables that has periodically become louder after widely publicized cases of shootings and abuses of power by constables, and it begs the question, “Why would anyone want to be a constable?”
“There’s sure no money in it,” District 1 Constable Chris Caudill said. “It’s a grand total of $133 every two weeks.”
Caudill, 45, of Whitco, is the only constable in the county running for re-election this fall. His regular job is as water department superintendent for the city of Whitesburg. He is facing Roger Eldridge, a Democrat and deputy jailer, who could not be reached.
“I help people anyway, and I just wanted to be able to help them more,” Caudill said.
He said his grandfather was a police officer or constable “I can’t remember which,” and he ran because of that.
As for the people who want do away with the office of constable?
“If they do, I will do the same thing I always did, and that’s help people,” Caudill said.
Jesse Lee Bates, 42, of Sergent, said he’s running for District 3 Constable because there are problems with drugs and litter, and the county doesn’t seem to have the money to address them.
“The county is low on funds and stuff, and there’s a lot of illegal dumps,” he said. In addition, he said there is a “real bad” drug problem in the county. “It seems like there’s not a lot of law enforcement around like there was when I was growing up.”
Bates, a Democrat who is unopposed in the election, said in addition to working on cleaning up dumps, he wants to talk to young people about staying off drugs.
He said he believes it would be a mistake to do away with the office.
“Constables don’t draw anything,” he said, referencing the low salary. “People out here doing it aren’t doing it for the money, they just want to help their community out.”
Most of the candidates reached said they have similar motivations. Austin Johnson, 24, of Colson, said if elected he plans to be out patrolling and serving people.
“I’ve always been in the service mindset, and the constables serve people,” he said.
Johnson said he has been a dispatcher for the Whitesburg Police Department for about two years, and he was recently appointed as a safety officer to direct traffic around the schools, Police Chief Tyrone Fields said. He also works as a substitute teacher.
“I can see the reason that some constables might present a liability because of the Constitutional powers they’re given, but I think getting rid of the constables entirely would be a travesty.”
Johnson, a Republican, is running against Brian Collins, 39, of Isom.
Collins, a truck driver, said he’s running because he wants to help his community and his neighbors. If elected, he said he plans to help with funeral processions and traffic, and, “If there’s a tree in the road, I’ll move it,” he said.
Collins said he doesn’t agree with people who say the office should be abolished, but he said some constables cause that mindset because of their actions, or their lack of action.
“If they would get out and do their job, it would make them look a little better and people wouldn’t want to get rid of them,” Collins said.
Candidates in Districts four and five could not be reached Tuesday.
Terry Perkins, who is a volunteer firefighter and works at Frazier’s Farmers Supply, is running unopposed in District 4. He is also a Democrat.
Roy Triplett, a firefighter and special deputy sheriff, is a Democrat running in District 5. He is opposed by Bucky Damron, an independent.
Constables are elected from districts, just like magistrates, and originally the cases they brought were tried in magistrate court in their district, but when voters approved the Judicial Restructuring Amendment in May 1973, judicial power was stripped from magistrates. Constables remained as peace officers.