What Do Vermont Constables Do, Anyway?
What's the history and function of town constables in Vermont? That's what Richard Dumughn wants to know.
Note: Our show is made for the ear! As always, we recommend listening if you can.
Dumughn put his question to Brave Little State, VPR's people-powered journalism project. Our show answers your questions about Vermont, our region and its people.
Dumughn was curious about constables after he and his wife traveled to New England from their home in Hertfordshire, in the United Kingdom, to celebrate Dumughn's 70th birthday. Along the way, they stopped in Montpelier for a tour of the Vermont Statehouse.
“This led to an interest in Vermont local government," Dumughn explained in an email. He came across things unknown to him — namely, he said, "the Town Meeting."
After that, Dumughn began researching Vermont town officials and their duties. Along the way, he discovered "people called Town Constables, usually 2 [sic] per town."
Subscribe to Brave Little State for free, so you never miss an episode:
The word "constable" comes from Latin words comes stabuli, which translates to “friend of the stables.” In the Middle Ages in France and Britain, constables led the cavalry, and then the military, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. By the time the Pilgrims came to the so-called New World, constables were merely local officials collecting taxes and suppressing riots.
And in 1777 — before Vermont even became a state — constables got written into the state’s constitution, where the reference remains to this day. It has to do with the election of governor. Each town’s constable, it was written, must deliver every vote to the General Assembly. Apparently, constables would bring all the bits of paper to Montpelier, in a bag.
I called up Will Sennig, the director of elections at Vermont’s Secretary of State office, to find out if constables are still tasked with this duty.
“Yeah, the constables used to bring the ballot bags up to the Statehouse, that's funny," Sennig said. Today, he added, each town’s clerk counts the ballots, and sends that count to Sennig’s office, which provides a tally to the General Assembly via some specialized software.
That means that while constables are still constitutional officers, their constitutional duties have become obsolete.
Which brings us to the next part of Richard Dumughn’s question. What do constables do now?
Richard Gauthier, the director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, said the answer to Dumughn’s question recently changed.
“I think it was 2011 that the Legislature mandated that constables must be certified by the Council to have law enforcement authority,” he said. “Prior to that, elected constables had full law enforcement authorities without ever needing to attend a day of training.”
That means from 1777 until eight years ago, you could be a farmer or a bartender, and you could show up at Town Meeting and have your neighbors elect you constable — and then inside the boundaries of your town, you would have full law enforcement authority. You could arrest people, charge them, detain them, you name it.
(Unlike other law enforcement officers, though, the constables were limited to enforcing the law inside town lines.)
Today, constables need at least 190 hours of training to receive certification that grants them law enforcement authority.
A new constable in town
According to Gauthier, only about 15% of Vermont’s 250 or so constables have that certification. The rest have limited powers.
Here are some of the things uncertified constables can do:
- serve court papers
- collect taxes
- remove disruptive people from Town Meeting
- kill injured deer
That’s what they can do. To find out what uncertified constables do in practice, I tried to get in touch with a man named Ben Whitcomb. He was elected constable in Williston this March.
First, I called the Williston town clerk to find out how to contact Whitcomb. But she didn’t have his contact information. She did mention that he works for a local farm, North Williston Cattle Company. When I called the company, Whitcomb’s mom picked up. She confirmed that Ben is the town constable. But, she said, she would only give me his phone number if I promised not to call him before 7 p.m..
The manure spreading deadline was 10 days away, and, she said, Ben needed to focus on getting the manure out of the pit.
So I guess that’s one answer: As constable of Williston, you don’t need to do very much. At least, not during manure-spreading season.
[Related episode: Who Oversees Vermont's County Sheriffs?]
46 years on the job
It turns out the position of constable can range from the Ben Whitcomb model to a paid, certified first responder. It’s up to the town — and the constable. And the opposite of Ben Whitcomb is probably Silas Loomis.
Loomis has been the first constable in Castleton for 46 years. He's a certified officer, and he's handled all kinds of situations, from DUIs, to domestic violence, to terrible car accidents. These days, however, he said Castleton’s six-person full-time police department handles the more complex and time-consuming work.
So instead, Loomis spends a lot of time doing patrols.
“I got areas of interest that I usually, I’m at, so people can see the black and white mark[ed] cruiser,” he said.
Loomis drives a black and white cruiser with his name painted in script beneath the driver’s side window. It was a hand-me-down from the town’s police department, he said, but he had it stripped and repainted to his liking. Loomis clearly loves the vehicle, which he’s packed to bursting with emergency equipment: firearms, a defibrillator, an arctic cold-weather suit.
On a typical day, Loomis said, he patrols the back roads, checks on elderly folks and stops by the dump. He keeps a lockout kit handy to help people who lock themselves out of their cars, and he likes to stay visible.
As Loomis described his day to day, I could hear how he delights in his job. But I kept prodding him for something more — and listening back, I’m dismayed at my own impatience.
I think I was hoping Loomis would tell me a story that would illustrate something more vital, more necessary, about being constable. Wasn’t there a time he pulled a drowning child from a frozen lake?
If Loomis has any heroic stories, he’s keeping them to himself. But, he said, there was more excitement back in the 1970s, before Castleton had a full-time police department.
“The constables were humping,” he said. “I mean, we were the first law enforcement agency in the town to get radar in our vehicle. Man, it was open season. I probably shouldn't say that, but really, it was!”
Today, Loomis said he occasionally takes calls from local and state police when they need backup. And he gets paid for that.
But, he said, “even without the funding for the constables, I still come out and work.” He loves his job that much.
It may be a testament to my generation — you know, selfish millennials. But I had a hard time understanding why a town would ask someone to patrol the backroads for minimal pay, when it’s got a professional police force. And I didn’t understand why someone like Loomis would want the job.
That is, until he told me something his dad told him, years ago.
“He's deceased. He's gone,” Loomis said, “But he says, you know, ‘Everybody owes their town something, other than paying taxes.’ Think about it."
Loomis’ dad was a decorated combat veteran in the Pacific and a farmer in Castleton. But what really left an impression on Loomis was the way he served his town. He was a deacon at the church, he sang in the church choir, and, Loomis said, he just helped people.
Si Loomis takes after his dad. He was a Navy Seabee during Vietnam. He used to be a volunteer fireman. He coaches football.
And, for 46 years, he’s been Castleton’s constable. He’s got a trunk full of emergency equipment in an old cruiser with his name on it. And it brings him joy just to be seen. So people know: If they need something, he’s out there. Ready to help.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund. How can you support us? Become a sustaining member of VPR, or leave us a review on your favorite podcast app.
Nina Keck contributed reporting to this episode, with editing from Mark Davis and mixing from Peter Engisch. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music. Other music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Angela Evancie is the creator of Brave Little State.