History of Constables

The office of constable dates back at least to 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England. William the Conqueror appointed constables to supervise individual communities, or boroughs. A constable's duties varied considerably in different circumstances and times. They were often similar to those of a sheriff, who supervised a shire (the equivalent of a county). Over time, however, as sheriffs were given increasing administrative duties, constables assumed primary responsibility for local law enforcement. The office of constable had been transplanted to the British colonies in North America by the mid-seventeenth century, and with it continued the divergence between constable and sheriff.

In America as in England, the main qualification for the office of sheriff was "that he be of sufficient estate." This limited the choices for sheriff to a relatively small and elite group of planters in each county. As a result, few sheriffs had either the ability or desire to serve warrants or bring offenders to justice. Consequently, the constable and justice of the peace were about the only law and order most rural American settlers ever saw.

In Texas, the Constable was the first form of civilian law enforcement established, and rapidly replaced the Spanish style military policing organization, beginning with the appointment of Constables in the Austin colonies as early as 1823, thereby pre-dating even the Texas Rangers, the nation’s first state-wide police force. Each of Texas’ Constitutions has divided every county into Justice Precincts with a judge to assure justice at the local level and a Constable to serve that judge by executing all civil process, taking custody of property as directed by the court, and, protecting it until its rightful owner can claim it, taking into custody criminals on outstanding arrest warrants, investigating crimes, gathering evidence and arresting criminals of all sorts within, (and frequently beyond the physical limits of) the precinct.

The duties and responsibilities of the Constable originate within our State Constitution and, while the Constable’s electors are voters of the precinct, the Constable’s commission is signed by the Governor and the Constable’s authorities are (technically) statewide; making the Constable lawfully, though not financially, independent of control by the Judge or the commissioners of the county in which the Constable serves. Yet despite their broad authority, most Constables limit their activities to their elective precinct where they proudly continue to serve as they have for more than a thousand years of history as the first line protection for the people. They are, and have always been, the first Community Oriented Police.

Today, constables numbering approximately 780 are elected from precincts in most Texas counties. Their law-enforcement roles vary widely, but in general their police powers are no different from those of other peace officers in the state. Complete records do not exist, but the most recent estimate is that at least ninety-three Texas constables have died in the line of duty, including sixty-seven in the twentieth century.