HAZARD —The office of constable in Kentucky has outlived its usefulness, according to a report released last week from the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet.
A research committee with the Department of Criminal Justice Training was charged with determining the effectiveness of the office following a series of criminal charges filed against constables and deputy constables in Kentucky. After six months of studying, the committee found that they believed the office is out of date and no longer relevant to law enforcement in the commonwealth.
J. Michael Brown, the Justice and Public Safety secretary in Kentucky, stated in a release about the Department of Criminal Justice Training’s findings that the office of constable can be and has been on many occasions a liability to the counties. A recent high profile incident in Jefferson County brought this issue to the forefront.
In late 2011, a constable in Jefferson County fired shots at a fleeing woman after questioning her about allegedly shoplifting. This case kicked off a series of questions as to just what the role of the constable is in similar situations, since in most cases they have no law enforcement background.
While the office of constable has been around for over 200 years in the United States, with modern, trained, and certified law enforcement in every county of Kentucky, they no longer serve the same function that they once did. Constables are not required to undergo any training or education in law enforcement. The only requirements to run for this office are to be at least 24 years old and a resident of their district for at least two years.
Constables are elected office holders like sheriffs, and for the most part have the same powers. While a sheriff does not need to have any training, all of their full-time deputies do, unlike deputy constables.
One person that believes that the office of constable is still relevant and also necessary is Clayton Church, the constable in Perry County’s third magisterial district. Church said that when he is off of work at his day job at Engle-Bowling Funeral Home, he keeps to a strict schedule of patrolling the streets within his district.
The office of constable is not governed by any other agencies in the state. This means that they do not have any set tasks and do not have to be in compliance with any regulations.
“We don’t have any boss. We are our own boss,” said Church. “We wouldn’t have to do anything if we didn’t want to.”
While Church said he has never had to arrest anyone, some constables choose to have a highly active role in law enforcement in their counties by making arrests and acting full time as an officer of the law. One way that they can do this is through serving papers, which they are allowed to charge a fee for.
“You can serve papers if you want to get out here and serve papers,” said Church. “I don’t have time to leave the funeral home work to go do that. If you want to go to school, you can get where you can clock radar.”
One thing that Church said that he does do as constable is run checks for warrants of people acting suspiciously that he sees while out patrolling his district. This requires an originating agency identification number, which he obtained through passing a test with the Kentucky State Police. “That gives me the right to run any tags,” said Church.
The office of constable is not a paid position. Cars, guns, radios, light bars are all paid for by the constable. Constables are, however, reimbursed for gas used in the execution of the job.
So while the position is not a great expense to the state or the counties, it can be a great liability since often constables do not have the proper training, and many times, proper equipment to safely and adequately handle normal law enforcement tasks, according to the study by the Department of Criminal Justice Training.
According the DOCJT Commissioner John Bizzak, while many of these officials wish to provide public services, the office has become more of a neighborhood watch or hobby than a needed position.
“While constables undeniably wish to perform a public service, the fact remains that for many of them the role is a part-time position with no certified requirements, no certified standards and no training,” said Bizzack. “What we have today is a position that has been called a hobby. And as a hobby, the office shouldn’t have the same law enforcement authority as trained, certified professional officers.”
Church said that if this is the argument against the position of constable, than this argument should also be made about special deputies of the sheriff’s office. Special deputies, or volunteer deputies, are also not required to be trained and can serve papers and make arrests. The difference is that they are allowed to use sheriff’s office vehicles and are given guns, equipment, and radios.
The office of constable is a constitutional office, yet despite this many have called for the office to be abolished. Church said that while a few people not taking the position seriously have tarnished the image, the office is still important and can be useful to the citizens of a county.
Church said that he hopes the push to eliminate the office will die down or that they will take a closer look at all of the untrained law enforcement positions in the state and treat them all equally.