Over the next few days, Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran will draw names to select the winners of nine Mobile County constable races that ended in a tie — a game of chance that will add new members to the state’s oldest and most beleaguered law enforcement agency.
“If there’s a tie, I’m the one who’s supposed to do it, by law,” Cochran said. “That’s the only reason I’m willing to.”
It may seem like a bad joke that someone could win a local election without ever entering it, but it’s happened … and recently. In 2008, former school board commissioner Hazel Fournier was elected to an open constable post in the Crichton area by a write-in vote. At age 79, Fournier was the only person whose name was written in, though she never actually assumed the post.
Just this year, Mobile County spent thousands of dollars hand counting write-in votes after 36 constable precincts appeared on the ballot without a single qualifying candidate. According to Probate Judge Don Davis, that practice isn’t uncommon, as it enables those attempting to become a constable to avoid filing fees and complying with the Fair Campaign Practices Act.
However, the elections process isn’t the only unusual thing about constables in Alabama — a group of law enforcement officers with the same authority given to other peace officers but with none of the required training, standards or oversight.
In Mobile County, which has more elected constables than the entire state of Arizona, local constables have been under enhanced scrutiny in recent years as some within their ranks have faced charges for drug trafficking, gun crimes and even murder — all while wearing the badge.
Yet, despite calls for reform from law enforcement leaders and even some constables, attempts to streamline the old system and bring more accountability to the office have repeatedly failed in the state Legislature.
What are constables?
A creation of the Legislature, constables are charged with keeping the peace. That might seem a simple task, but it’s also one that isn’t clearly defined anywhere in state law.
While the code of Alabama does outline a constable’s duties as serving civil summonses, attending court and enforcing traffic laws, it also mentions other duties that “may be required” by law without specifying what those might be.
Another section of the state code also gives constables the same authority to make arrests that state troopers and sheriff’s deputies have, though many county jails have not recognized that authority for years.
“We don’t recognize their arrests for liability reasons,” Cochran told Lagniappe. “They would have to sign a warrant on a person before we would accept them at the jail, and that policy was in place long before I became sheriff.”
Constables serve four-year terms coinciding with each presidential election, though some places — like Baldwin County — have already ended the practice of electing constables.
In Mobile County, though, there is a constable elected for every voting precinct set by the Mobile County Commission. This means that, as of January, there will be 88 constables throughout the county.
However, the day-to-day activities of a constable can vary from county to county and even from precinct to precinct. Though the position is unpaid, constables can be compensated for things like issuing court summonses, providing funeral escorts or working school traffic — fees paid directly to a constable by the respective court, funeral home or school receiving those services.
For Leo Bullock, a retired law enforcement officer who’s been a constable since 1984, a routine day might consist of any the activities listed above.
“I’m in uniform seven days a week, and I typically start out with two other constables working traffic at school crossings so it doesn’t cost the city of Mobile three officers,” Bullock said. “I also do funeral escorts, and I serve a ton of papers. A lot of times if something needs to be rushed through, because of my schedule I can have it served the day I receive it.”
Bullock is the president of the Mobile County Constable Office, but while that may sound official, neither he nor the office have any authority over the 88 constables in Mobile County. Recently, Bullock explained that while constables have the authority to conduct arrests and write traffic tickets, most do not exercise those powers.
It would be difficult for constables to “make money” writing tickets because, according to Bullock, they would have to obtain an agency identification number and pay for their own tickets. Any fees collected would then be directed back to the municipality where a ticket is written.
Even so, Bullock said, laws on the books currently allow constables to put themselves in those situations that some aren’t at all qualified for, creating a dangerous situation for everyone.
“I’m fearful that some of these guys are not only a threat to themselves, but also a threat to citizens. It scares me,” Bullock said. “Without any type of training, they pick up a book and it says, ‘I can do this’… but the the book doesn’t tell them how to go about doing it.”
That’s because constables are not required to go through the same police academy or United States Department of Justice training required of police officers before they’re hired and during their time on active duty. Bullock says he has completed those and several other training courses, but nothing requires the 87 other constables elected on Nov. 8 to do the same.
Still, Bullock believes trained constables can and have served as excellent first responders in situations where state or municipal police forces are short-handed, which has become more common locally as departments have seen a number of officers leave their positions for higher-paying jobs with other departments or in the private sector.
“We are first responders, and there’s a number of things that we’ve had to respond to over the years, like the 1993 Amtrak disaster,” Bullock said. “We can and do work together within the law enforcement community, and we have state and national associations that put on a training conference every year.”
However, because there’s no requirement to attend those training conferences, many constables don’t. That’s one of a number of reasons some law enforcement agencies are hesitant to work with constables despite the services they can provide.
According to Cochran, a plan to utilize constables when issuing summonses would have freed up a number of deputies, but it was abandoned before it got off the ground because attorneys had too many concerns about the liability risk constables posed for the county.
With some changes, Cochran said, there is likely some way his office could benefit from utilizing constables.
“With the right oversight and qualifications, I think there could be something that would work because there are some fine ones, like Mr. Bullock, who are retired law enforcement officers,” Cochran said. “But many have no law enforcement standards or training, and as a result, you’ve seen a number of them get into trouble over the years.”
A history of problems
While there have been a number of criminal incidents involving constables across the state in recent years, those occurrences may seem more prevalent in Mobile County because of the sheer number of precincts here.
While some counties set the number of constables based on state House districts, Mobile County holds an election for every individual voting precinct — meaning changes to local voting districts have inadvertently added and eliminated numerous constable positions over the years.
As of last week, among the 88 constables in Mobile County, 28 were elected by write-in votes and nine have yet to be determined by the sheriff’s office. However, last week Bullock said he’d already heard from some of the incoming constables who weren’t quite sure what constables are supposed to do.
“Since the election, I’ve gotten many phone calls saying, ‘I think I was elected as a constable, what do I do next?’” he said. “I want to say, ‘Come on, folks, this is a real office,’ but that’s what the current system is, and that’s got to change.”
While constables aren’t provided with any equipment, they’re allowed to — as many do — carry badges, uniforms and guns. Some even equip their personal vehicles with police gear, though state law does prohibit them from using the blue lights associated with police cruisers.
Unlike just about any other law enforcement position, constables are not subject to a criminal background check, which has led to a number of people with prior criminal records being elected as constables. To Bullock, those constables are “an embarrassment to the office,” but other elected officials believe they could pose a real danger to themselves and others.
“Constables have been a problem since I first got to the Legislature four years ago — they write themselves in, get elected and then go out and cause problems,” Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, said. “Some are truly good people that serve the position with a sense of duty and commitment to the community, but some are just criminals who want to run around with a badge and a gun.”
In the past two years, concerns with constables became such an issue that an Attorney General’s opinion was issued clarifying that those convicted of a felony would have to vacate their office or face impeachment proceedings.
Since then, the Mobile County District Attorney’s office has successfully removed at least two constables from office due to felony criminal convictions, though the office took legal action against at least one other.
Former constable Larry Sheffield was convicted of murder by a Baldwin County jury over the summer for shooting and killing a man after an argument at a Causeway bar in 2014. Another constable, Mario Yow, was convicted of trafficking cocaine just months before his election in 2012.
Last year, constable Donald Aucoin was convicted of DUI charges, while constable Scott Bond pleaded guilty to federal firearms charges in the state of Kentucky. Convicted of a misdemeanor, Aucoin served the remainder of his term. Bond also remained in office for a short time while serving his federal probation sentence, though he ultimately resigned.
Constable John Howard Arnold Jr. had two run-ins with the law in 2015 — one in March when his vehicle struck a pedestrian as he led a funeral procession and the second in October when police in Mobile charged him with first-degree robbery and possession of marijuana.
The latter incident was sent to a Mobile County grand jury for review, but so far Arnold has not been indicted on any of those charges. No matter the outcome, though, more than 1,100 people voted to re-elect Arnold as the constable for Precinct 27 earlier this month.
Most recently, Doug Roberts was arrested after an investigation suggested he had repeatedly ticketed motorists while representing himself as a deputy constable. According to probate records, Roberts had registered to run for a constable position, but had not been elected at the time of his arrest.
Currently, Roberts is awaiting trial on dozens of charges for forgery and impersonating a peace officer, but without a conviction the charges alone wouldn’t be enough to prevent him from running for a constable seat. However, the Mobile County Republican Party removed his name from the ballot prior to the general election.
Despite those occurrences and the scrutiny they’ve put local constables under, Bullock said he still gets “tickled to death” when constables are exposed for wrongdoings in the press or in the public eye. To him, those incidents help put pressure on the only people that can fix what he sees as a broken system.
“Constables are creatures of the Legislature, and that’s where our authority comes from,” Bullock said. “Legislators play a big part in what we can or can’t do, and they have failed to enact proper legislation to keep constables accountable and regulate some of the work we do.”
Failed legislative efforts
For a number of years, Bullock has pushed for legislative reforms to the constable system to no avail, despite a number of laws that have modernized constables’ roles in other states and even in others parts of Alabama.
While multiple counties have already passed laws that determine constable precincts based on House districts, a similar piece of legislation sponsored by Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Mobile, a few years ago died before it could be approved by Mobile County’s local delegation.
When asked why, Glover said there was “no appetite in the delegation” to fix the system, even though many believe it “clearly isn’t working.”
“We may have a majority, but for local bills you almost have to have it unanimous,” Glover said. “There are some members that have friends who are contables that feel like they would be on the outs, and apparently, they’re not going to go for it … at least not right now.”
Legislation that dies in a local committee seldom sees a formal vote, and Glover didn’t specifically name any legislators. However, when Pringle was asked about the impediments these bills have seen, he pointed to his colleagues across the aisle — saying “the Democrats never support repealing any elected office.”
According to Bullock, Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, has been one of the “strongest opponents” of the legislative reforms he’s pushed, although a similar statewide bill was sidelined in 2015 after Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Mobile, and others threatened a filibuster.
At the time, Bracy told a local TV station he was afraid limiting the number of constables would “hurt small communities” that rely on them. Though Bracy went on to say he “wanted all sides to sit down together” to review the issue, there’s been no legislative effort that would affect constables in Mobile County since.
Multiple calls and emails to Figures and Bracy seeking comment for this report went unreturned, though it’s worth noting both are members of the “Leaders for Truth & Justice” — an organization of local political and faith leaders that expressed “strong support” for a Police Citizens Community Advisory Council in the city of Mobile.
For Bullock, who’s worked with constable groups in a number of states across the country, the pushback against reforms proposed locally has been particularly frustrating, but despite those setbacks he’s already talking to Glover about carrying another bill in the 2017 regular session.
“I won’t give up, because there are other good contables that work with us every day,” he said. “The system can be fixed, and it wouldn’t take all that much to fix it. I’m confident that in working with legislators, we’re going to get the legislation we need eventually.”
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