Who is your constable? Don’t know? Don’t feel too badly. Even some of the most conscientious voters cannot tell you who their elected constable is and have no idea what he or she does.
For the most part, that’s no big deal because most constables elected in Kentucky do little or nothing as a result of their office — and that’s just the way most Kentuckians want it. If there was ever a need for elected constables in Kentucky, it disappeared decades ago.
Nevertheless, constables continue to be elected in all 120 counties, and while most of them have little or no law enforcement training or experience, they have the same rights and powers as the highest ranking and best trained police officers in Kentucky. But instead of helping improve law enforcement in Kentucky by increasing the number of officers patrolling highways and investigating crimes, many constables actually hinder law enforcement by performing law enforcement duties without proper training. Instead of helping professional police officers and prosecutors build cases against criminals, untrained constables can actually taint evidence, violate the rights of suspects and bungle cases so badly that successful prosecution becomes more difficult if not impossible.
While some constables actually think they help professional police officers do their jobs and bring criminals to justice, the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council (KLEC), a statewide organization made up of sheriffs, police chiefs and state police, disagrees. A new year-long study released by the council calls for a constitutional amendment to eliminate the office of constable. Short of elimination of the office, the study asks for legislators to strip away the law enforcement duties of constables.
The KLEC study found that the more than 500 elected constables in the state perform one-fourth of 1 percent of all law-enforcement work in the state. Constables are not paid and have no law enforcement training.
“They are unregulated and have no standards,” said Commissioner John Bizzack, who heads the Department of Criminal Justice Training.
The recommendations come a year after a constable in Louisville, David Whitlock, shot at a woman across a Wal-Mart parking lot. Whitlock resigned in October as part of a plea deal that kept him out of jail.
Justice Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown, who presented the report, said the recommendations are not aimed at any individual and that there have been issues with constables from around Kentucky. The report cites incidents, including arrests and confrontations with citizens, involving constables in Lexington and Louisville as well as Clark, Johnson, Knox, LaRue and Muhlenberg counties. A constable in neighboring Carter County was killed while trying to assist professional law enforcement officers.
The actions of the relatively few constables who work part-time, carry a badge and use law-enforcement powers, reflect badly on professional officers. “The integrity ... of all of them is diminished by the office of constable as it exists now,” Brown said.
Not surprisingly, the KLEC report was quickly denounced by the Kentucky Constables Association. On its Facebook page, the organization said constables work for free to aid local authorities.
“It’s time for our government to stop wasting all our tax dollars to dream up all this non-since,” said the posting that including the misspelling of nonsense. “Government just can’t seem to stand it because we work for the people that elects us and not for the government themselves.”
Kentucky established the office in the state’s 1850 Constitution, but constables have no clearly defined authority in the document. Lawmakers granted it law- enforcement powers in state law. Getting rid of the office would require a constitutional amendment passed by the General Assembly and approved by voters. Law-enforcement powers could be stripped away by law.
Eliminating the law enforcement powers of constable is the first step the Kentucky General Assembly should take. Beyond that, legislators should give voters the opportunity to eliminate the office by placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Fortunately, most elected constables in the state do little or nothing for the pay they don’t receive. They are not the problem. The problem is those few constables who attempt to “play cop” without training. They need to disappear.