You’ve probably heard the term constable before, but do you know exactly what a constable is and what one does? Unless, you’ve had a run in with the law, you may not.
Constables Go Way Back
Constables have been around for centuries, and the term “constable” comes from the Old French word conestable meaning “steward.” The first constables were established in France at the beginning of the 5th Century. They soon evolved to become the Chief Household Officers and had the responsibility of commanding the king’s army in his absence.
In England, King Alfred established the first constable in the year 871, and declared the constable the highest judge in the military and in matters of chivalry. The constable was also the supreme referee in tilts, tournaments, and martial displays.
How it came to be the English word we know today is most likely a result of the charming way the English language has of adapting foreign words and creating new ones. Constable is a merging of the English words “counts of the king’s stables.” Sheriffs, who oversaw the administration of a shire (equivalent to a county) often shared the duties of the constable until William the Conqueror appointed constables to oversee individual communities or borough within a shire.
Constables Come to Pennsylvania
When the English arrived in the New World, they brought along with them more than their language, customs, and culture; they also brought along their system of law enforcement. The first constable was appointed in 1632 to serve the Plymouth Colony. The leading official was the Justice of the Peace who was assisted by the constable. The first constable in Penn’s Woods began to serve in 1664. Pennsylvania became a Commonwealth in 1681, and constables were among the first public officials of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
What Constables Did
For most of the 1800s, what a constable did was based on what type of municipality in which they served. In towns, townships, and wards their duties were fairly uniform: maintaining the peace, executing warrants issued by the local justices, and policing crowds. However, in boroughs where things were not codified (such as some boroughs in Pennsylvania), they were also responsible for regulating the sale of bread, wine, and wood. Some were even allowed to pass local ordinances and levy fines.
As more municipalities established their own police forces, the role of the constable began to erode and for those that remained, laws were instituted to make the constable’s powers more uniform across the state.
What Constables Do Now
Today, the position of constable is an elected one. They are elected at the municipal level but are governed by state law. They belong to the executive branch of government, falling under the jurisdiction of the governor of Pennsylvania. Strangely, they perform services for the Pennsylvania Magisterial courts, but do not belong to the judicial branch. They work as independent contractors.
Constables serve a six-year term and must complete state certification and training before taking office. In addition to functioning as peace officers, upon request by the sheriff, they may also serve the courts, (primarily District Courts). They serve arrest warrants; transport prisoners; serve summons, complaints, subpoenas, protection from abuse orders, and eviction orders as well as judgement levies.
Constables are the only law enforcement officers allowed to be present at the polls on Election Day. Deputy constables are appointed by Constables, and in Allegheny County, those appointments must be affirmed by Order of the Court.
Does the Pittsburgh Area Still Need Constables?
Many states across the country have done away with the position of constable. Philadelphia abolished them in the 1970s. Naturally, those in favor of constables say they save money as they draw no salary from the taxpayer and must pay for their own expenses such as uniforms, firearms, vehicles, etc. They are reimbursed on a set fee schedule.
However, many criticize the use of constables for several reasons. First, they seem to lack oversight. Reporting to the executive branch of the state and the governor, but working for the judicial branch and the magistrates, they are sometimes viewed as lacking the proper oversight.
Second, a rash of unprofessional–and in some cases illegal behavior by constables–was exposed by the Associated Press in 2008, including: constables stealing court money, having sex with prisoners, as well as threatening people with weapons.
In 2014, an audit in Allegheny County showed constables received $1,600 in duplicate payments during an 18-month period. To address those issues, a Constable Handbook was developed for those serving in Allegheny County.
Whether the position of constable stands the test of time or not, someone will still have to complete the work that constables do. Someone will have to serve legal documents and transport prisoners. Someone will have to monitor the polls on Election Day. While some argue that this work could be done by the police, don’t bet on the position of constable being eliminated anytime soon without a battle. It’s been around for more than 1,100 years, and with that kind of longevity, it might be difficult to eliminate the position altogether.