THE BAD NEWS BEARERS

EVICTIONS, SUBPOENAS, REPOS--CONSTABLES SPEND THEIR LIVES GIVING PEOPLE GRIEF. NOW THESE HARBINGERS OF HEARTBREAK JUST MIGHT BE LOOKING AT THEIR OWN PINK SLIPS.

Constable Burt Alvord, who served Willcox in the 1890s, made news when it was discovered that he used the law enforcement office as a front for his other profession--robbing trains. As the story goes, Alvord left behind his partner in crime, "Three-finger" Jack Dunlap, after Dunlap had been shot. Dunlap recovered, turned in Alvord and had the satisfaction of seeing him go to jail.

In Arizona, some things never change.

Time was, constables sent out the invitations to hangings, picked up dead bodies, summoned juries and made sure everyone minded his manners in court. They were the law, especially in some of Arizona's more remote outbacks. Some still are.

But today, an army of government agencies, cops and court officers chase bad guys and keep order. That's meant a change in the constables' job, and an evolution that hasn't exactly been smooth.

Constables are sworn peace officers, but their primary function is serving the writs--for collection and eviction--and the orders, summonses and subpoenas of the justice court they serve. They've played a starring role in some of the state's more entertaining legends. (As recently as last year, a constable in Pinal County ran on the platform "I won't shoot your dog.")

Constables are also in danger of becoming extinct. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that if the Arizona Legislature allows the counties home rule, the constables are history, at least as elected officials.

But while state and county officials wring their hands over what to do with the court's enforcers, as though they were some sort of weird relative, constables like Adelita Villegas in the East Phoenix Justice Court have taken a more modern approach. She's quietly redefined her role, becoming something of a social worker as she addresses citizen welfare along with the law.

Today, constables face an identity crisis akin to that of Phoenix--the eighth-largest city in the nation, located in a county where the sheriff fights crime with a posse on horseback.

Chandler Constable Jim Jones, who just ended his tenure as president of the Arizona Constables Association, considers his job the last bastion of grassroots law and order.

Jones is a lawman's lawman, a by-the-book kind of guy. He served 21 years on the Chandler Police Department before being elected constable 16 years ago.

There's a badge on his belt, a gun at his side and handcuffs in the front seat of his car. Portraits of John Wayne hang on the walls of his office.

The police radio cackles in the background as Jones pulls into the parking lot of an apartment complex to evict a woman behind on her rent. He'll call in his location before going to the apartment--the landlord said there'd been a fight earlier involving the woman's boyfriend and a car deal that went sour. The police need to know Jones' location, in case he needs back-up.

Jones bolts up the stairs and raps three times on the door with the knuckle of an index finger--a cop knock.

"Police officer," he says.
A woman answers the door holding a baby and explains that, yes, she did get his posting yesterday and, yes, they're moving. But it seems her boyfriend went to rent a storage unit to house their belongings several hours ago and hasn't returned.

"Get your toothbrush and toothpaste," Jones tells her, his standard eviction line.

She scrambles around the apartment putting some things into a plastic garbage bag while a maintenance man whose jacket says his name is Larry changes the locks on the front door.

The woman begins a nervous, rambling dissertation about her maternity leave and a variety of other circumstances leading to her eviction.

"Take it easy," Jones tells her. "It's one of those things. Happens sometimes."

The story continues, anyway.
Jones asks if she has children in school. She does.
"You need to be back here when they get home from school," he says, then adds, "May I ask if you have a blanket for the baby and a jacket?"

"Oh, yeah," she says, flustered, grabbing a car seat.
The woman disappears to a pay phone. Jones calls in to report that he's leaving the location.

"If you can get in and out of there and try to leave people with a little bit of self-esteem, it's best for everyone," Jones says later. "You could just go in there and be Rambo if you wanted to. But you probably wouldn't get reelected."

Today's eviction has gone off without a hitch. It isn't always so easy.
Once, Jones went out to repossess a horse that hadn't been paid for. He was met at the door by a woman with a rifle, who began firing over his head, saying, "You're not takin' this horse."

Not until the cavalry arrived--police back-up--was she persuaded to negotiate.

Maricopa County's 21 constables are as diverse as the areas they serve. Regardless of style, the job isn't pretty.

They spend at least half of most days delivering bad news. They evict people from their homes. They collect on overdue debts and repossess merchandise. They serve orders of protection--court orders that prevent someone, usually a spouse, from contacting someone else. They serve notices calling suspects and witnesses into court.

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