Babe in the 'hood

When Aurelio Castillo was elected constable, it was like dressing a little kid in a grown man's uniform. At 34, Castillo was energetic, proud, and completely unqualified for the post granted him by the voters of Precinct 6.

As elected officials with full law-enforcement powers, constables answer to virtually no one, giving the office, as one veteran deputy puts it, "all the power of the sheriff, without the jail." Mostly, constables serve the civil and criminal orders of the courts, making the job anything but glamorous.

But Castillo, the first Hispanic to win a constable post in Dallas County, was bursting with ideas and wanted to flex his newfound muscle. "We basically can do anything, whether it's drug interdiction or making a traffic stop," he says--quickly adding, "We're not here to do drug interdiction, because we don't have the manpower."

Castillo planned to use his men--15 full-time deputies and 21 volunteer reserve deputies--to take a high-profile approach to law enforcement. "When a constable comes knocking on the door, people should know they are peace officers--that they are cops," he says.

Within weeks of taking office, Castillo had his deputies making traffic stops, patrolling the business section near his Oak Cliff office, and raising money to buy five bicycles for a bike patrol. He wants to buy a radar gun to catch speeders in school zones, and work with schools to enforce truancy laws.

Castillo has gone to Houston for law enforcement classes (because he was not previously a police officer, Castillo has a year to earn his state peace officer certification) and to watch the work of a similarly aggressive Hispanic constable in Harris County. While he was there, Castillo also met with supermarket executives to find out how his office can more effectively collect on bad checks.

Castillo, in short, is an ambitious newcomer. Groomed for power by political veterans--former state legislator Roberto Alonzo and the man who unseated Alonzo, Domingo Garcia--he is unmistakably young, and more than a little naive. His only previous political experience was a stint on the Dallas Park Board.

The venerable office of constable, on the other hand, dates back to medieval England. In Texas, where the office is an almost sacred part of the state constitution, it has earned a more memorable reputation for abuse of power, malfeasance, and election high jinks--all for $57,000 a year and a $350-a-month car allowance.

It did not take long for grief to find the very young man in the very old office.

In recent weeks, Castillo has come under fire from critics for everything from incompetence to cattle rustling. One justice of the peace won't even use Castillo's office to serve warrants and court papers anymore, in part because his deputies threw an innocent man in jail.

Castillo has been accused of selling a deputy's job in exchange for a campaign contribution, a charge which several people close to the situation say is now being investigated by the Dallas County District Attorney's office. The DA's office is also said to be looking into charges that records in Castillo's office were manipulated to cover up that a full-time deputy was not showing up for work. Officially, spokesman Mike Gillett declines to say whether the DA's office has an investigation under way.

Castillo has also been accused of violating the U.S. Constitution by holding a swearing-in ceremony at a Catholic Church.

Some of the attacks on Castillo reek of malicious gossip, apparently spread by the enemies and ungracious losers inevitably spawned in the small world of constable politics. But other charges are true, the stumbles of a brash young politician who has found himself at the beginning of a very steep learning curve.

In recent weeks, Castillo has learned a lot about his friends. And he clearly has some growing to do before he'll fill out his new constable's uniform.

Five Snap-On tool clocks hang on the walls of Julio Perez's office at his prosperous Oak Cliff auto-body shop. The short, quiet, wiry man in his freshly laundered uniform service shirt is dwarfed by his desk. Softball trophies threaten to crowd the Better Business Bureau and Chamber of Commerce plaques off the desk, and Selena cassettes vie for a toe-hold amid the messy pile of receipts. The clutter could easily serve as Perez's resume, biography, and, ultimately, his epitaph.

"Julio is a nice man," says one of his friends, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone who has crossed Perez's path. "He truly wants to help people."

Over the years, one of the ways Perez has helped his community is by volunteering as a reserve deputy constable. He says he has helped serve warrants, guarded J.P. courts, and even worn a uniform and carried a gun. From his desk, Perez produces letters, one giving him permission to buy his impressive uniform, another praising his courage in the line of duty. "I like to help any way I can," Perez says shyly.

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Glen Warchol