The number of law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction over Fort Worth is more than you might think. Someone breaking bad locally could be detained by city cop, college campus cop, state trooper, county sheriff, Texas Ranger, TABC agent, border patrol cop, U.S. Marshal, park ranger, FBI agent, and the list goes on. That adds up to a lot of protectors of the peace, each wearing his own version of a badge that gives him power over the rest of us.
So why does it seem that things get funky with constables so often? Fort Worth Police Department, with 1,600 officers, is no stranger to periodic allegations of wrongdoing. Constables, with far fewer numbers, seem to draw disproportional attention, not just in Tarrant County but across the state.
The Dallas Morning News has written numerous stories in recent years about constables gone awry in Dallas County. Articles by News reporter Kevin Krause have revealed schemes in which constables seize vehicles – often from Hispanics – tow the cars using a specific contractor, impound them, and apply high-dollar towing and storage fees before auctioning them off.
Over the years, Fort Worth Weekly has fielded several complaints about allegedly abusive or unprofessional constables, including one in Tarrant County who had a similar arrangement with a towing contractor in the early 2000s.
In 2012, a Dallas jury convicted a constable of engaging in organized crime. And, last fall, another was accused of over-billing Dallas County almost $20,000. These kinds of scandals prompted the paper’s editorial board to characterize constables as an “almost antiquated holdover” from Texas’ earliest days.
Constables go back in history long before anyone ever thought about Texas. They are among the world’s oldest law enforcers, dating back to the 5th century and established in countries worldwide since then. The European tradition came west with American settlers.
In Texas Constables: A Frontier Heritage, author Allen G. Hatley, a former Bandera County constable, wrote that throughout the “American Revolution and during the westward expansion before the Civil War, the constable and justice of the peace were about the only law and order most Americans, particularly those on the frontier, ever came in contact with.”
Famous lawmen beginning their careers as constables included Wild Bill Hickok and Virgil and Wyatt Earp. In Texas, constables are elected to four-year terms in each precinct of every county.
The Weekly receives infrequent calls regarding questionable behavior by local constables. Allegations have included excessive force, unethical campaign funding practices, improper personal use of county equipment, racial profiling, and quid pro quo arrangements with towing and bail bonds companies. Some complaints have had merit, while others were difficult to prove or turned out to be false.
The complaints often end with a similar refrain: The constable does what he or she wants and doesn’t listen to my grievance.
Oh, but there is a way to complain. It’s called a voting booth.
“It is the people’s police,” said Clint Burgess, the constable in Precinct 7, an area that includes Arlington, Burleson, Dalworthington Gardens, Grand Prairie, Kennedale, and Mansfield. “It is one of the few agencies that report directly to the people.”
Reporting to the people has its challenges. Cops in big cities can be protected. Supervisors, city administrators, elected officials, district attorneys, and others can circle the wagons around an accused cop. A constable and his handful of deputies have less red tape to operate under but fewer bureaucratic protections when things get sticky.
Most proactive law enforcement falls to city cops, county deputies, state troopers, and others. Constables’ stature has dwindled over the years, with police patrolling the cities and sheriff’s deputies watching the unincorporated areas.
Still, constables and their deputies deal with people in any number of highly charged situations, from serving subpoenas to evicting people from homes to removing a child from a parent by court order. Tarrant County’s eight constables perform regular sweeps to arrest parents in violation of court orders requiring them to pay child support.
“We have the broadest range of duties than any other law enforcement agency,” Burgess said. “It is not something that can be taken lightly.”
One of our more cantankerous former constables was Jack Allen (“You Don’t Know Jack,” January 23, 2003). For 14 years, he oversaw Precinct 4 in northwest Tarrant County in bull-headed fashion. Allen was short – only about 5 feet 7 inches – but stocky, barrel-chested, and not one to shrink from any challenge to his power.
The Weekly’s investigation into his office in late 2002 and early 2003 showed he had territorial run-ins with Fort Worth police officers, showed preferential treatment to wrecking companies and bail bonds operators who donated to his campaign, and developed a reputation for being vindictive to his critics. Allen hosted an annual charity golf tournament in which only about 15 percent of the money found its way to the charity, based on his campaign contribution forms, prompting the director of a government watchdog group to characterize the constable as unethical. During an interview with the Weekly in 2003, Allen told Jeff Prince that he would “come visit” him at his “home” if certain information were printed in the paper. Prince wasn’t sure if Allen was joking or not.
In September 2001, Allen let his state-issued peace officer’s license lapse after failing to take required training courses, based on records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. About 30 tickets he had written during the lapse were dismissed by then-Justice of the Peace Jacquelyn Wright, and the fines returned. In 1998, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported that Allen filed a complaint accusing Fort Worth police of trying to “kidnap” a suspect whom Allen was taking to jail for a misdemeanor violation. In 2001, the paper reported that Fort Worth police reviewed Allen’s decision to shoot at the tire of a car being driven by a man suspected of illegal dumping. That same year, the Star-Telegram wrote about a dispute between Allen and a Fort Worth police officer who pulled over a car for speeding in which Allen was a passenger. In 2002, a former clerk in Allen’s office filed a federal lawsuit against Allen, accusing him of racism because of his alleged use of racial slurs and in targeting minorities while enforcing the law. The county settled the lawsuit and would settle at least one other related to complaints against Allen.
Several candidates challenged Allen’s stronghold on Precinct 4 in 2004, running on platforms that vowed to restore professionalism and integrity to the office. Allen was unseated by Dub Bransom, a former U.S. marshal who said he decided to seek the office after reading the Weekly story.
Precinct 4 isn’t the only one to draw scrutiny. In 2007, county officials grew concerned over what they considered to be Burgess’ independent ways in Precinct 7 (“Calling the Constable,” May 9, 2007). Commissioners were dismayed upon hearing that Burgess had outfitted his deputies with radar guns and encouraged them to issue traffic citations, something commissioners had clearly stated they didn’t want.
Later, one of Burgess’ deputies was involved in a high-speed chase with a suspected speeder and shot at the suspect’s vehicle. The driver turned out to be a minor. At first, the deputy denied firing his weapon, but a witness had reported hearing the gun fired and called in to report it to Mansfield police. An independent investigation determined that the deputy had fired his weapon.
County officials wanted Burgess to relinquish the radar guns. The constable, however, stood his ground. Burgess was still fairly new to his position at the time But he wasn’t a pushover. Burgess served military tours in Saudi Arabia and Turkey and traveled the world before entering into law enforcement, according to his bio on his website. He vowed to bring his constituents to a county commissioners meeting to let them express their support for his pro-active law enforcement. That sounded like a threat to commissioners.
Burgess, however, wasn’t as brash and combative as Allen. Burgess defused the situation by meeting with commissioners and maintaining a constructive relationship with them while also staying true to his belief that constables, as elected officials, can operate their offices in the manner they see fit. Burgess was stuck between commissioners wanting him to serve papers and constituents who, according to Burgess, wanted more traffic enforcement.
Burgess straddled both camps. He did not make traffic stops a high priority, nor did he prohibit deputies from citing someone driving dangerously. Seeking the middle ground appears to have worked out well. Burgess, who at 31 was one of the youngest constables elected in Texas when he took office in 2005, was named the National Constable of the Year by the National Constables Association in 2008 and Mansfield Citizen of the Year in 2010.
“It is all about relationships and community,” he said. “You have to be open. You have to put the people first. You serve based on the needs of the people.”
Last year, the Weekly looked into a resident’s complaint against Constable Jon Siegel’s office in Precinct 6, a territory that includes southwest Fort Worth, Benbrook, and Crowley. Paul Hicks went to the subcourthouse to inquire about an eviction form for a friend. Hicks felt like he was getting the run-around and ended up speaking to several county employees, including a deputy constable and Siegel, before being told to leave. Hicks continued to argue his case. Deputies grabbed him, forced him to the ground, handcuffed him, and charged him with disorderly conduct, as captured on the county’s hallway surveillance cameras.
Hicks was holding a digital recorder at the time, and his recording captured the deputies’ conversation during the arrest. A jury might have considered parts of the deputies’ conversations as questionable and heavy-handed. The Weekly’s investigation indicated that the deputies acted with more force than needed. On the other hand, Hicks is persistent and loquacious to the nth degree and can be his own worst enemy (“Whose Conduct is Disorderly?” February 17, 2017).
More recently, several residents have accused Tarrant County Constable Ruben Garcia of intimidating them without cause. Fort Worth Detective D.L. Collins confirmed that police are looking into Garcia’s actions with respect to a large fight near West 7th Street last summer.
“This is an ongoing investigation and is classified as confidential,” Collins wrote to us in an email late last year. “No other comments will be made regarding this incident at this time.”
Collins told us recently that the investigation is still ongoing and that he had no other information to add.
His assurance of a confidential investigation isn’t exactly soothing relatives and friends of three young men injured in the fight. They are wondering just who, if anyone, is investigating Garcia and what is going to be done.
The fight broke out shortly after last call at Reservoir, a popular bar/restaurant in the West 7th corridor. A relative of one of the men contacted the Weekly about three weeks later, alleging that the fight occurred as Garcia looked on and at one point threatened the three men with jail time. Weeks later, a witness on the scene spoke to us but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution by Garcia, who staunchly denies any wrongdoing.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Mon., June 27, according to the police report, Alan Arredondo and Benny Ortiz decided to leave the bar/restaurant. Mutual friend Anthony Soto had arrived in his car to drive them home and was waiting outside in the adjacent parking lot. As Arredondo and Ortiz walked toward Soto’s vehicle, about 10 people approached from behind, according to the police report. The group, all white and Hispanic males, according to the witness, began kicking and punching the two young men and pelting them with bottles. Arredondo and Ortiz eventually made it into Soto’s car.
Vehicles were parked in front and behind Soto’s vehicle, the witness said, blocking the driver’s escape.
The victims told police that most of their injuries occurred while inside the vehicle –– fists and beer bottles were hurled through open windows. In the police report, “severe body trauma,” “bruising,” and “bleeding” are some of the ways the three men are described.
Garcia told the Weekly that his priority at the time was protecting the occupants inside the bar.
To his critics’ claims that he did not provide ample security and was intimidating the three men by allowing the unfair fight to continue, Garcia mostly blames family drama – Garcia and Ortiz have known each other for years, and the mother of Ortiz’s young child is related to Garcia. Soto is also a distant relative of Mike “Mikey” Valdez, who unsuccessfully ran against Garcia in the 2015 constable election.
Constables, as with any licensed peace officers, are trained to handle chaotic situations. But the alleged victims of the fight claim Garcia made no attempt to help them or call for backup. One of the victims claimed he was ordered by Garcia to stay inside Soto’s vehicle or risk being arrested. Garcia said he did say that but for the victim’s own safety. Garcia said Soto had “escalated the situation” by getting out of the car to trade blows with one of the attackers.
The witness denied that Soto escalated the situation in any way.
Prior to the fight, Garcia said he had asked Ortiz to leave Reservoir for “inappropriate conduct” involving a woman.
Garcia said a customer informed him that he had followed Ortiz to the parking lot and saw him retrieve from the trunk of a car two folded towels, one of which obscured what the customer believed was a gun handle.
We reached out to Ortiz, but he declined to comment, citing his desire to not disrupt his relationship with his child.
Garcia said he didn’t call 911 because a customer watching the melee already did. An open records request revealed that a 911 call describing the fight was placed at 2:18 a.m.
“I made sure Fort Worth police were called,” Garcia said.
Garcia said he hollered for the fighters to stop but did not physically intervene.
“My responsibility was to keep the patrons of the business safe,” he said.
The fight happened quickly, he added.
“At all times I was just trying to protect the public,” Garcia said. “It spun out of control.”
Garcia said he was outnumbered and waiting for backup.
“I was verbally trying to stop the fight and de-escalate the situation,” he said. “I was trying to get everybody to disperse. I was giving commands for people to leave and for the vehicles to move so these gentlemen could leave. I was trying to get people off the car. I was giving instructions for the gentleman to stay in their cars and lock the doors.”
Soto, according to the witness, steered his car around one of the vehicles blocking him, squeezed out of the narrow one-way parking lot that runs in front of Reservoir and surrounding businesses, and made his getaway, turning down the alley beside the bar and escaping into the back parking lot near the nearby restaurant Chimy’s. Police arrived shortly after, but no one was apprehended. The police report was filed by two officers who visited Soto at his home the next day.
Garcia worked as a jailer and deputy for 12 years at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department before resigning in 2010 and seeking election as constable in 2012. When we told a high-ranking official at the sheriff’s department about the intimidation accusations against Garcia, he was not surprised.
“That’s his reputation,” the official said, speaking anonymously because he is not allowed to discuss current or former employees publicly. “We had several incidents when he was here of him being accused of such things. None of that would surprise me.”
Garcia was a 19-year-old graduate of Paschal High School, standing 5 feet 8 inches and weighing 167 pounds, according to his dossier, when he was hired on as a technician at the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. A look at his county personnel file shows an employee who was frequently reprimanded for showing up late for work, sleeping on the job, and missing work altogether. Supervisors counseled him for using foul language and for his “demeanor with inmates,” according to his file. He was also counseled for showing up late and calling in sick and reprimanded for “conduct unbecoming” after making threatening comments to an inmate. An employee of John Peter Smith Hospital who was working in the booking area of the Tarrant County jail at the time filed the complaint, saying Garcia had punched and kicked the inmate while yelling, “Scream like a bitch.”
Garcia declined to comment on the matter.
Garcia turned in his two-week notice on August 9, 2010, saying he wanted to improve his training and advance his career in law enforcement elsewhere. Two weeks later, he was sworn in as a reserve deputy constable in Precinct 5 under then-Constable Sergio DeLeon. In 2012, Garcia accepted De Leon’s offer to become a deputy constable but later withdrew that acceptance after deciding to seek election instead. De Leon, who had held that position for the preceding 11 years, had been elected as a justice of the peace.
Garcia won a tightly contested election and was sworn in on January 2, 2013, after defeating Republican and career law enforcement officer Dan Chisholm, who garnered 40 percent of the popular vote. Last March, Garcia won his second term handily, defeating Mikey Valdez and Richard Alfaro with 63 percent of 7,078 votes cast. Garcia’s 4,449 votes more than doubled those for Valdez, his closest competitor.
Texas Rep. Ramon Romero described Garcia as a “kind, nice guy” who is active in the community.
That characterization might come as a surprise to at least one individual who spoke on record for this article. Steve Thornton, a 28-year veteran of the Fort Worth Fire Department who unsuccessfully ran to unseat District 2 City Councilmember Sal Espino last May, characterized Garcia as a “disgrace.”
“He always has some kind of camouflage on with his gun slung low,” Thornton said. “I used to work side-by-side with police and SWAT guys. He’s acting more like a SWAT guy than actual SWAT guys. He’s an idiot.”
One of the victims told us he has given up on the prospect of justice in the matter. He said the police officer who took the report refused to consider Garcia’s actions during the fight and failed to obtain security camera footage from the club.
Detective Collins did not return repeated attempts to reach him for comment by press time.
Not long after Garcia spoke with us, he put us in touch with a witness, a different one who wanted only his first name used, Andrew, for fear of retribution from Ortiz and his friends. Andrew said he was at the bar with friends when Ortiz began harassing a woman in their group. One of Andrew’s friends told Ortiz to shove off, and the two began arguing. Ortiz claimed to have a gun in his car and said he would be waiting outside for the man, Andrew recalled.
“You always take the gun comment seriously,” said Andrew, who said he has worked security as well.
Professor Robert Burns, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at TCU, said formal policing in centuries past involved what the English called the “shire-reeve,” which became the modern-day “sheriff.” That person, depending on need, was assisted by what were known as “comes stabuli,” which became the modern “constable.” Today, the role of constable varies widely from state to state.
“It’s a holdover from years past when it had a more defined role, he said.
The training for a constable is similar to that of any Texas law enforcement or peace officer. Once elected, constables who do not have a law enforcement background have 270 days to attend a police academy or fulfill equivalent criminal justice training at a community college. Then the new peace officer must pass a test administered by the state regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
Flexibility allows constables to serve their community in unique ways, said Carlos Lopez, president-elect of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association, a Texas membership-based education and advocacy organization.
In Harris County, whose county seat is Houston, he said, “The commissioners [court] funds constables to do patrols just as the police department does. The job descriptions depend on each county and what the needs are. The commissioners vote on what their budget is going to be. That pretty much drives what the duties will be.”
Should a wayward constable end up on the wrong side of the law, the line of accountability could go several ways, he said. Various groups could be involved “depending on what the issue is,” Lopez said. “If there is an issue with training compliance, then Texas Commission on Law Enforcement would investigate or suspend their license. If they’re accused of some misconduct, the district attorney’s office could initiate a proceeding or even the attorney general.”
In Tarrant County, that job includes a wide range of duties, including collecting millions in fees that, along with other department collections, account for 13 percent of the county’s $515 million general fund.
Between October 2015 and September 2016, Tarrant County constables served 101 subpoenas, made 27 arrests, served and returned more than 14,000 court-related papers, and attempted to serve nearly 7,000 court papers, according to county records.
The position has come under scrutiny before. In 2001, during the 77th State Legislature, several dozen bills proposed curtailing or allowing the abolition of constables.
“Back in the day, there were issues,” Lopez said.
Constables, he went on, “didn’t have the qualifications they do now, and I guess folks were having an issue with the type of constables that were coming on board. We have increased training and the qualifications for constables. As a result, we have a better quality peace officer.”
The increased training includes courses in civil process and the procedure of delivering subpoenas, restraining orders, and other legal documents that require verified delivery. The constable service is stronger and better educated than ever, Lopez said.
“We have come a long way,” he said.
Editor’s note: This version of the story has been updated to reflect recently confirmed information.