THE BAD NEWS BEARERS
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.
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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.
They have no staff and most work at least part of the weekend and some evenings in order to get documents served.
As elected officials, the constables answer to no one but the voters. They have no boss. The county Board of Supervisors controls their $1.2 million budget and their equipment--including their county cars, which have been a big reason some candidates run for the office, and the easiest way for a constable to get into trouble.
The law requires that constables be 21 years old and live in the district they serve. That's about it. Arizona Peace Officer Standards Training Board (AZPOST), the same folks who train the cops, offers a 40-hour training course on the civil process for the constables. It does not teach them about things like firearms and arrest procedures, and it's not mandatory.
Depending on the size of the voting population in the district, Maricopa County constables make up to $44,000 a year, a salary set by the state legislature.
All of this seems to be attractive to a lot of people. Generations of people, as a matter of fact.
Buckeye Constable Frank Chilcoat's son, John Chilcoat, was elected to the post in Glendale. Gila Bend Constable Carol Sly's father was also a constable. And Jim Jones' son, Kevin Jones, is one of two deputy constables.
Arizona constables seem to have a penchant for the wild and wacky, which hasn't exactly helped their case when they've tried to preserve the office.
A few have been reprimanded for overzealousness, including one who took it upon himself to make traffic violations his business and pulled over a car. He found a county supervisor behind the wheel.
Among the county's more notorious personalities is former East Phoenix constable Barney Blaine, who was indicted in 1992 for living outside his precinct, soliciting bribes and lying under oath about the sale of merchandise he had confiscated on the job.
His county-issued car was seized by police for delinquent parking tickets. Blaine lost his law enforcement certification after he was arrested for shoplifting videotapes and magazines from a supermarket.
Joe Freddy Abril didn't do much to help the constables' image, either.
Abril, nephew of former state legislator Tony Abril, served for 16 years as constable of the South Phoenix Justice Court. While in office during the 1980s, he was arrested three times, lost his county car twice and his driver's license once.
In one particularly infamous incident, Abril was convicted of drunken driving after cruising down a street with two flat tires. And a third missing. His license was suspended for a year, but the diligent Abril continued to serve the court on foot, by bus and through the kindness of friends who gave him lifts.
Abril's legal travails made for tension in the courthouse. Until South Phoenix Justice of the Peace Robert Garcia locked him out of the courthouse altogether.
Another former East Phoenix constable, Greg Olea, was booted out of office in 1992 after he was convicted for using cocaine found in his county car. Olea has filed an appeal.
Prior to that, he was investigated for misusing his county car and required to repay travel expenses he'd charged to the county for attending constable conventions.
Maryvale Constable Danny Wilcox had his car taken away by the county Board of Supervisors last year after he was found driving it for personal use--specifically, going to a convenience store and a wedding.
"The bad publicity we've had has killed us," Jim Jones says.
It may kill the office.
The constables exist by way of the Arizona Constitution, which states that everywhere there is a justice court, there is a constable.
But if the counties receive the right to draft their own charters through a proposal known as "home rule," constables will likely cease to be an elected post. Their fate will land in the hands of the county Board of Supervisors.
Tom Rawles, chairman of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, insists that he hasn't yet made up his mind on the issue of constables. However, Rawles also doesn't see the point in electing people for a job that's not a policy-making position.
"I look at elections as opportunities for people to discuss and decide issues," says Rawles. "What are the issues with a constable?"
Much like the sheriff, constables don't answer to the supervisors or anyone else. They are accountable, in effect, to no one except the voters, who sadly aren't always up to speed on candidates at the end of the ballot.
But somebody's got to do the job, which is a lingering problem in Maricopa County's budget crisis. As justice courts increase in size, the service business is booming. And it can only get bigger: Tentative plans would boost the maximum damages allowable in cases before a justice of the peace from $5,000 to $7,500, which would bring more cases before them.
In the absence of constables, their duties would likely be farmed out to sheriff's deputies and an ever-shrinking county staff. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio already has filed suit against the Board of Supervisors because of its cuts to his department.
Meanwhile, Rawles gave the constables kudos for becoming "more team players" during the county's budget blood bath last year. The board has no power to adjust constables' salaries, which are set by the legislature, but did cut the constables' only administrator and all of their staff except two deputy constables who rotate to fill absences.
At the same time, Chief Justice Stanley Feldman is leading the charge to reorganize the court system, which some speculate will corral the constables into a more centralized court, rather than their remaining in separate districts.
Until then, the constables are on their own, enforcing the law of the court in their individual corners of the world.
At 68, West Phoenix Constable E.T. Hernandez presides over what is reportedly the roughest, toughest justice court in Phoenix. He has a gun, a badge, a cowboy hat and an agent--his budding acting career includes credits in local theatre, a few commercials and bit parts in three feature films.
Hernandez appears to know everyone in west Phoenix, where some folks say they made him constable as a matter of practicality since he's out and about every day, and in everyone's business, anyway.
Hernandez stands five feet, four inches tall--about five feet, seven inches with the black cowboy hat--and sees himself as a mediator. As an act of faith, his home phone number is on his business cards. He also discreetly collects and delivers clothes to constituents in need.
"I think regardless of what you do, you can reach people a whole lot better with a smile than with a growl," he says, expounding his philosophy.
"This job is tailor-made for me. I'm kind of like a doorknob in the community--I try to open doors."
Hernandez operated a paving company until being appointed constable in 1986, when the previous constable retired. He's been on the Isaac School Board since then, too, and active in the community for longer than anyone, including he, can remember.
He's been reelected twice and pays little attention to the periodic allegations seemingly every constable faces about misuse of the county car or how much time he spends on the clock.
"I have two Mercedes, a Volvo, a motor home and a pickup. Why should I want to drive the county car?" he says.
Hernandez's war stories may not be better than anyone else's, but his delivery makes them seem that way.
Once, he recalls, he had to serve an Order of Protection on "a big guy with bikes out front."
"I told him to get his personal belongings and leave the premises," Hernandez says.
"`Who's going to make me?'" the man asked.
"`I'm not,'" Hernandez said. "`But I'm asking you. And somebody's going to make you, anyway.'
"He called me everything but a nice Mexican, so I followed him back into the house, because you never know what he's going to come out with, and he finally left."
Hernandez told the man to call him in a couple days, when he cooled off. Then he'd let him back in the house to retrieve his things. Instead, Hernandez got a call the next morning. The man wanted to meet him at a coffee shop.
The wary constable entered through the back and wasn't sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn't what he saw.
"You could tell right off that he'd been crying all night long. Told me he loved his wife, loved his kids, been married 19 years and so on. He wanted to go talk to his wife.
"The guy got down on his knees," Hernandez remembers. "He was crying, she was crying, the kids were crying and by that time I was crying."
They all went to see the judge, who rescinded the order.
Another woman called Hernandez in the middle of the night and reported that her husband had come back after he was ordered out. Hernandez called the police, but somehow the codes got mixed up and the call was broadcast as an "officer in trouble."
"It looked like a circus when I got there," Hernandez says. "The guy had tried to come in through a window. But there were cops everywhere."
The guy never tried again.
"We all have our faults," Hernandez says. "It doesn't mean we're bad people. I don't fear because my best partner walks behind me all the time--I'm a very firm believer in the Lord."
Some say the constables might have a brighter future if they took on a slightly different role. One such is Adelita Villegas, who has taken it on herself to shepherd her "clients" through the judicial and social systems. Villegas, whose jurisdiction is primarily older neighborhoods in downtown Phoenix, has become something of a housing advocate.
On a particularly chilly winter day, Villegas searches the brick exterior of an apartment complex on Thomas Road for unit numbers. The landlord wants to be rid of some tenants--now. Constable Villegas is here to serve papers from the East Phoenix Justice Court evicting them for nonpayment of rent. The tenants have 24 hours to move out.
Dressed in a long, gold sweater over white stretch pants, Villegas plods across soggy grass to the apartment in question. She is worlds away from the "get your toothbrush" school of eviction.
A curly mane of black hair frames Villegas' face, which looks much younger than her 41 years and much softer than that of Jim Jones' hero John Wayne. Villegas doesn't listen to the police radio in her car because it's distracting and, frankly, annoying.
And in situations like this one, which make up the majority of her job, Villegas' background in social work is more important than her official title as a law enforcement officer.
Villegas is a different kind of constable. She is a child of the projects and a single mother who still attends meetings of the housing agencies she worked for before being appointed and subsequently elected constable.
The only gun she has squirts water and sits on a shelf in her office below a colorful Mexican wall hanging that reminds visitors she is the first Chicana to serve in this office. Her badge is tucked inside a leather billfold, along with a list of phone numbers to social service agencies.
Villegas prefers the figurative back door rather than a frontal approach to situations she encounters, and today she applies a mixture of concern and control that moves the people along without asserting herself as the law.
"How is your move coming?" she asks the worried, tired-looking people on the other side of the door frame.
Inside, the apartment is still filled with furniture and few signs of leaving. The tenants tell Villegas they have five children and have been to the city's Human Resources Center looking for assistance. They have an appointment with a caseworker next Tuesday.
But that's four days from now. And they have nowhere else to go.
"I have to be honest with you and tell you that if they're not willing to work with you on this, you're going to have to leave," Villegas tells them. "Do you have someplace you can go?"
There is some discussion of a sister, but no real plan. There's the mention of a tax return, but it would never arrive in time.
Fate--in this instance, the calendar--steps in. Since Monday is a holiday, Villegas won't be back until Tuesday to change the locks on the apartment. In the meantime, she'll call the caseworker to find out what's going on, check if the city has funds available and do her best to find a place for this family before it is physically evicted.
By definition, none of this is her responsibility as a constable. But Villegas and a small faction of constables like her see it as their role.
To them, it's a matter of practicality.
If the family doesn't have a place to go, they're going to end up in an overpopulated shelter system shared among a number of different government and private agencies. If the landlord doesn't give them time to get their belongings out of the apartment, by law he will be required to store them for 60 days, which would be costly to everyone involved.
Once, when Villegas showed up at the manager's office during another eviction, the woman looked at her with disbelief.
"Are you the constable?" the manager asked. "I guess I was expecting some big guy with a gun--like a bouncer or something."
But the big guy with a gun is going out of style, at least in Phoenix. Villegas may be the constable of the future.
Maybe it's a way to hang on to some measure of small-town atmosphere in the big city, maybe it's because people aren't paying close attention, but the constables have hung on a lot longer than a lot of people ever thought they would.
Folks like E.T. Hernandez are part of the landscape in their communities. And for all their foibles, the voting public seems to have a great deal of patience with the constables.
They keep reelecting them.
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