In many respects constables perform duties similar to sheriffs. They serve criminal and civil legal papers, transport prisoners, collect back taxes and debts owed the government, and provide emergency assistance when needed. Different from sheriffs, constables no longer retain the peacekeeping or criminal investigatory powers they once had. Thirty-seven states mandate the office of constable; nine states never recognized the office; and the remaining states employed constables at one time, but no longer. In some states the office is elective; in others, appointive. Constables serve in both urban and rural areas and, like sheriffs, have the power to deputize.


The word constable comes from the Latin comes stabuli, meaning ”head of the stables.” In ancient Rome the first men to perform the role of constable were trustworthy servants who guarded the royal stable and armaments. The French introduced the position of constable into British common law, following the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066. With more expansive duties than stable groom, the transported constables kept the militia and the king’s armaments in a state of readiness to defend village communities throughout England. Before long the Lord High Constable emerged to represent the king in all military affairs and wield considerable power. In France the same elevated personage enjoyed even greater authority. The French constable stood next in line to the king on matters of state. On a lower level English constables, public civil officers as opposed to military, acted as a legion of enforcers for the Lord High Constable. The Blackstone Commentaries on the Common Law provided for a broad range of constable duties and powers. Constables were entrusted with collecting taxes, arresting lawbreakers, conducting searches, transporting prisoners, and serving all criminal and civil papers. Even the local apothecary had to open his topics and records to the constable.

In the American colonies the constable was the first law enforcement officer. His duties varied from place to place according to the particular needs of the people he served. Usually, the constable sealed weights and measures, surveyed land, announced marriages, and executed all warrants. Additionally, he meted out physical punishment and kept the peace. The first constable on record was Joshua Pratt of Plymouth colony (1634). His primary responsibility was to maintain vigilance against disorder by overseeing the Watch and Ward, the Ward during the day and the Watch at night. Curiously, New England settlers went so far as to appoint Indian constables who supervised Indian deputies under their command. In populated cities like New York, a large contingent of constables went about their duties. The indomitable Jacob Hays served as high constable in New York for more than forty years and built a reputation for stringent law enforcement. Farther west in youthful cities like St. Louis, the constabulary was the precursor of regular police forces. Being the first law enforcement officers in the colonies did not guarantee job security. As with sheriffs, the rise of centralized police departments by the mid-1800s appeared to diminish the need for their services. Nevertheless, constables have survived another 150 years.

Lack of Cohesion

The National Constables Association (NCA) was founded in 1973 in New Jersey as the National Police Constables Association (NPCA). Little came of the NPCA, so in 1976 several dedicated members moved the association to Pennsylvania where it was incorporated as the NCA. Dropping Police from the title was a show of independence that may have estranged cordial relations. Seemingly, police, sheriffs, and constables cannot get along with one another. If government funding is low, police believe they should get the lion’s share. Not only money but authority and jurisdiction are at stake. Some police see sheriffs as too power hungry and constables as taking bread from their mouths, while sheriffs and constables remind police of their rich heritages and cannot understand why their brethren are so monopolistically bent. Speaking on behalf of the NCA, Pennsylvania representative Peter H. Kostmayer underscored the value of constables to the nation:

More and more local municipalities are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for the salary and benefits of new patrolmen. Constables are legally self-employed contractors who provide their own liability insurance, health insurance, the use of their own emergency vehicles, and their own uniform and radio communications equipment. … In all cases, the constable can be paid for services on a salaried basis, an hourly basis, or on a fee plus mileage basis at almost no cost to the taxpayer.

Because constables are sanctioned by law to carry out non-crime prevention duties under the direction of the chief of police, to serve court papers, and to perform a myriad of other duties for the county commissioners and local municipalities, they should be in great demand. Those are jobs regular police disdain and should not have to do anyway given their main charge of crime prevention. However, sporadic friction continues to separate constables, police, and sheriffs. The national census of constables and deputy-constables is unknown. Estimates for Pennsylvania, the home state of the National Constables Association, run as high as five thousand professionals. The NCA proposed to President Bill Clinton that constable positions be made part of a jobs package to stimulate the economy (1993). The proposal asked for three million new positions that would ensure the continuance of constables and in the bargain be cost effective to government. If today the United States still adhered to the English model, constables would be full-fledged police as they once were. Throughout Great Britain police forces are called constabularies and the highest ranking officer is the chief constable. The exception is the London Metropolitan Police Force, New Scotland Yard, administered by a commissioner, his deputies and assistants, along with a group of commanders.

Next post:

Previous post: