Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

March 10, 2013

Kenneth Hart: Constables should be retired

ASHLAND — In this day and age, it’s rare to see common-sense legislation coming from any governmental body, so it’s refreshing the Kentucky General Assembly is considering what I believe is an example of such.

House Bill 147, approved a few days ago by a House committee, is a first step toward doing away with an outdated and largely superfluous constitutional office: that of county constable.

Rather than eliminating the office statewide, the legislation would allow individual counties the option of deciding whether they want to keep the position or drop it from the ballot.

It’s hard for me to imagine why any county would choose the former. While constables perform some useful functions — serving civil court papers, assisting sheriff’s departments and acting as security guards at high school sporting events among them — the position has clearly outlived its usefulness and needs to be abolished.

At one time, constables served as bailiffs, but they were stripped of that duty when the state revamped its court system in the 1970s. Today, constables have no prescribed duties. And, they have the same countywide law enforcement jurisdiction as sheriffs — powers bestowed upon them when the position became an elected office in 1850.

Not all constables serve as peace officers, but many do. And that only compounds problems.

While state law mandates sheriff’s deputies, city police officers, campus police and even airport police officers be certified under the Peace Officer Professional Standards Act, constables are under no requirement to receive any type of formal law enforcement training.

So, what this means, essentially, is Kentucky has a small army of cops, roughly 500 of them, who are empowered to enforce the law, but aren’t required to have  training in how to do so, and who are accountable no one but themselves.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, actually. There have been numerous examples statewide of constables abusing their positions and winding up on the wrong side of the law. Some recent ones have included a Clay County constable convicted of selling pain pills and illegally possessing a gun and a Jefferson County constable who stepped down as part of a plea agreement after shooting a suspected shoplifter in a Walmart parking lot.

In addition to posing a risk to the public, enforcing the law without adequate training puts constables in danger as well. Constables have died in the line in duty, including one in Carter County several years ago.

The only convincing argument for keeping constables is the additional manpower they sometimes provide in support of police and sheriff’s departments. But, one would expect if the office was eliminated, those departments would be able to take up the slack without a great deal of difficulty.

And, under House Bill 147, which is sponsored by Rep. Adam Koenig, E-Erlanger, counties that actually have a need for constables would have the option of keeping them.

Kentucky has a history of holding onto elected positions long after they’ve become antiquated — remember, it wasn’t that long the office of railroad commissioner was abolished, even though the railroads had been under the control of the federal government for years, which rendered the position impotent.

While they’re moderately more useful than railroad commissioners, they’re equally vestigial. It’s time — past time, actually — for them to be consigned to history.

KENNETH HART can be reached at khart@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2654.

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