AMP University: Things Your High School Civics Teacher Didn’t Teach You
According to a recent report from katv.com, Election Coordinator for the Pulaski County Election Commission Amanda Dickens has claimed that voter turnout for recent runoff elections for the positions of Justice of the Peace District 1 and Constable Hill Township was unusually low. Dickens noted one reason for low turnout might be a general lack of knowledge of what these positions mean, saying, “Most people don’t know what a constable is, what functions they perform, and the same with the justice of the peace.”
Of course, the fact that most people don’t understand the importance of these positions does not make them any less vital. Local elections may not seem as critical as those on a state or federal level, but they can have as much or more direct influence on their local communities, and a small handful of votes can make the difference. A democracy needs its people to vote if it is to function smoothly, but people can hardly be expected to vote if they have no idea what they are voting for.
The question then becomes, what is a constable, and what does one do?
The origin of the word constable is comes stabuli, Latin for “count of the stable,” a position in the late Roman Empire responsible for procuring and caring for the horses and pack animals of the army and imperial court. Unsurprisingly, this particular meaning has not persisted in any modern usage. Constable remained an important military rank in many European nations for centuries but eventually changed to refer mostly to a law-enforcement context. In most countries that use the name today, a constable is the lowest rank in their police force. In the United Kingdom, this is also true, but technically any official with the legal powers of a police officer, even those who are not part of the police force, can be called a constable. Denmark is the only nation that continues to use constable as a military rank, but it remains a low one.
Here in the United States, things are more complicated. There is no official police rank known as “constable,” but America does have many constables who perform different roles. The meaning and responsibilities of the position vary from state to state and sometimes even within the state. Some serve at different levels, some are elected, some appointed, etc.
In Arkansas, constables are elected at the level of townships (a civil division of a county) to act as an alternative source of law enforcement, as police officers can be expensive to pay, train and equip. Their terms are two years and they are charged with keeping the peace within their township. Despite being elected officials, most constables are paid either nothing or very little and must pay for their uniform and equipment out of pocket. This takes some of the burden off local governments in rural areas that might otherwise struggle to afford enough police officers for all the ground they need to cover. They have the same legal powers as a sheriff, being able to arrest, write citations, and respond to accidents. Although they are a part of law enforcement, the position of constable is a partisan one, so candidates can run as a republican, democrat, etc.
Despite being a cheap alternative to police officers, the constable position has not been without its controversies. Until former Arkansas Governor Beebe signed Act 871 into law in 2007, constables were not required to have any training, wear uniforms, or mark their vehicles. While most constables have law enforcement experience, this was not always the case, which led to issues with “rogue constables” once upon a time. Now, there is a standardized uniform and training program, which at 120 hours is longer than the required 100 hours of training for police officers. Elected constables are not legally required to go through the training, but those who lack training certification cannot carry a gun or access information from the Arkansas Crime Information Center, making it very difficult to enforce anything.
Even after Act 841, there have been multiple unsuccessful attempts in the Arkansas legislature to abolish the position, which some consider outdated and unnecessary. Some sheriffs find them to be under-trained obstacles, while others have had no issues with them and cite their importance for rural areas. Some constable candidates even run and win on the promise of doing nothing at all; since they are paid little to nothing anyway, not much is lost if they simply agree to stay out of the police’s way.
Regardless, constables are a current reality and should not be overlooked. If your local community has a constable, you should consider how you feel about the position and the candidates during elections, as it may directly affect your life one day. Is the candidate someone you can trust if they pull you over or respond to an emergency? Does your community need the extra law enforcement, and if so, can it afford more regular police officers? Perhaps the candidate and the position are a good match for your local situation, or perhaps you can do just as well with a candidate who promises to do nothing.
Either way, the heart of democracy lies in understanding what this elected position does and voting for what you decide is best. Constables, by their nature, are from small and sparsely populated communities, so your vote will make a difference.
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