Intent to ease backlog, but some say deputies aren't prepared for risk
By Kevin Krause
The Dallas Morning News
DALLAS, Tex. — Dallas County constables, known primarily for serving civil papers, took on major traffic enforcement duties several years ago.
Now they're going to be kicking in doors while heavily armed to serve felony and high-level misdemeanor arrest warrants. County officials want to use 40 existing deputy constables to help the Sheriff's Department reduce its five-figure backlog of felony warrants and Class A and B misdemeanor warrants beginning Oct. 1.
The county's five constables will be able to begin warrant operations when they're ready, using two-man squads. Many say they are prepared to begin. The policy change does not require a vote from county commissioners, though they approved a new staffing configuration Tuesday that makes that plan possible.
The constables now primarily serve Class C misdemeanor warrants, the lowest level, as well as justice of the peace warrants.
Ryan Brown, the county budget director who proposed the idea, said the new policy would use additional manpower without spending more money, except for equipment upgrades and additional training if needed.
Some constables say their officers are already highly trained for the dangerous and volatile job of tracking down hardcore criminals. Many have years of experience working for large police departments, they say.
"We handle dangerous criminals on a daily basis," said Precinct 3 Constable Ben Adamcik.
But the Sheriff's Department, which handles felony and higher-level misdemeanor warrants, isn't so sure.
"I can't see the constables serving felonies. Constables are not prepared for that," said Assistant Chief Deputy Joe Costa. "You don't know what you're going into when you kick in someone's door."
For police officers, serving arrest warrants is one of the most dangerous tasks.
Of the more than 17,000 law enforcement officers who have been killed while on duty since 1912, 491 died while serving an arrest warrant, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington.
Officers conducting forced-entry operations have to contend with vicious dogs, booby traps, crossfire and violent criminals desperate not to go back to prison, said Tommy Taylor, owner of Texas Tactical, a SWAT school in Weatherford for police and the military.
"You're pushing somebody into a corner. They will do anything they can to keep from going in," Mr. Taylor said. "In some cases, they will lose their freedom for the rest of their lives."
Chief Costa said it's a better idea to use constables to serve higher-level misdemeanor warrants.
"If we can filter some of those misdemeanor warrants out ... that takes a lot off our plate," he said.
Sheriff Lupe Valdez also expressed reservations about constables serving felony warrants. But she favors giving them some of her high-level misdemeanor warrants.
"The more help we can get out there, the better," she said.
Thousands of warrants
The Sheriff's Department has 17,066 active felony warrants and 64,780 active misdemeanor warrants, spokesman Michael Ortiz said.
Some sheriff's warrant deputies worry they'll be downsized or moved to the jails to cover staffing shortages if constables begin handling high-level warrants. During a jail-crowding crisis in March, Sheriff Valdez transferred 50 deputies to the jails for guard duty. They were only recently moved back.
Sheriff Valdez's warrant section is the largest among sheriff's departments in Texas, with 58 deputies working in two-man squads.
Mr. Brown said there is no truth to the rumors about downsizing the warrant division. He said its current allocation of deputies will not change.
Using constables to serve felony warrants in large Texas counties is rare, but Travis County has done it for years.
Tarrant County constables focus primarily on civil process work. Harris County constables, who have the most deputies in the state, handle only Class C misdemeanor warrants.
In Texas, Deputy constables are certified peace officers who go through police academies like police officers and sheriff's deputies. During initial training, they receive basic instruction on serving warrants, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.
It's up to individual agencies whether officers get additional training for serving warrants, a commission official said.
Mr. Taylor, whose school trains Travis County constables, said extensive planning is necessary when serving high-risk warrants. Officers must be familiar with all points of entry to a residence, he said.
They must know whether to use a sledgehammer, battering ram or pull cables when entering and what type of door they'll be hitting. They may need heavier body armor than the standard-issue bulletproof vest, he said.
And deputy constables must take precautions if children or seniors are living in the residence to prevent injury. That usually means not using flash-bang grenades or tear gas, he said.
"It takes a lot of training and the right mindset," Mr. Taylor said.
Mr. Adamcik said that he has a tactical-entry trainer on his staff and that some deputies already carry semiautomatic rifles in their cars. He said his deputies know their precinct's neighborhoods better than the Sheriff's Department.
"We can concentrate in our neighborhoods that we're already in," he said. "We could start Day 1. We hope to have huge success with this."
Precinct 4 Constable Roma L. Skinner said his office has handled parole violation warrants involving dangerous criminals for years.
Serving felony warrants "would be nothing new to us," he said.
Derick Evans, the Precinct 1 constable, said his deputies face danger every day while serving civil papers. Luckily, no one has been shot or had to shoot someone while on duty, he said.
"When you knock on a door, you don't know if that person has just robbed a convenience store," Mr. Evans said. "I tell these officers all the time to be careful."
Good skills already
Mr. Taylor said deputy constables are usually better than the typical patrol officer at reading people because they knock on doors all the time to serve civil papers. And that's an important skill to have, he said.
"You can tell before going in there if you're going to have problems with them," he said.
Mr. Brown, the budget director, recommended in July that each constable's office be staffed with eight warrant deputies and two writ deputies. In the past, those deputy positions were allocated based on the amount of paperwork the office handled.
"The intention is to double the number of people looking for these criminals," he said.
Mr. Brown said the constable precincts collectively have about 40,000 unserved Class C misdemeanor warrants. Most of those are unpaid traffic tickets, he said. The county uses a law firm to initiate collection actions against those people, Mr. Brown said.
If that fails, the state will refuse to register a vehicle or renew a driver's license when the owner has an unpaid traffic ticket, Mr. Brown said.
Stan Thedford, a former sheriff's sergeant who is president of the Dallas County Sheriff's Association, said it's a bad idea to allow deputy constables to serve felony warrants because they haven't been able to keep up with "their load of civil papers."
Mr. Thedford said some of the constables complained when the sheriff's civil division was scaled down several years ago, requiring them to take on additional work. He said he was also surprised when the county assigned traffic duties to the constables given their civil process workload.
"You're creating more of a workload on the constables, who aren't equipped for it," he said.
But Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said the constables have not asked for additional civil deputy positions and that he isn't aware of any unreasonable backlogs of civil papers.
"I heard the same concerns when they started traffic [duty]. They performed superbly," Mr. Price said. "I definitely believe they are capable."
Commissioner Mike Cantrell said the constables would help get serious repeat offenders off the streets.
"They tend to be the ones who violate the law most often," he said. "It's a better utilization of our resources to make our communities safer."
Mr. Cantrell said there is a safety concern anytime a law enforcement officer serves a warrant. But deputy constables can receive training if they need it, he said.
"They will be right on top of their game," he said.
Copyright 2007 The Dallas Morning News
Texas constables will soon serve felony warrants