FRANKFORT - Counties could abolish their constable offices under a bill that cleared a House panel on Tuesday.
The proposal, which state lawmakers have been trying to pass in various forms for years, was approved by the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs. The bill will now proceed to the full House for consideration.
“I’m not here to say all constables are bad or not following the law,” said Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, the bill’s sponsor. “But there have been plenty of incidences where that has been the case.”
Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson, who calls Koenig a friend, said the idea of giving counties the say over whether to have constables or not is a better approach than abolishing the office statewide or stripping the position of its law enforcement powers, ideas which have been floated in the past but failed.
“In some communities, constables do a good job and in other communinities they are a liability,” said Wilson. Koenig’s bill “would give the counties the power to decide how the office is regulated.”
Wilson has voiced his opposition to constables in the past, in part because of incidents in Garrard County where constables have overstepped their bounds and also because he believes untrained and unrestrained constables open up counties across the state to serious liabilty concerns if they behave badly.
“We have four constables that I have no authority over, but if they get sued the legal liability falls back on us,” he said. “You have some cowboys running around out there with a badge and a gun and blue lights arresting people after dark who have no training. It’s past time for the law to be changed.”
Lincoln County Sheriff Curt Folger, on the other hand, thinks it would be a big mistake to do away with constables. Folger said three of his county’s four constables play active roles in their district, regularly patrolling and providing valuable information to his office without abusing their authority.
“We work together. They share information with us and sometimes help us develop cases,” Folger said. “I get a few complaints, but the positive outweighs the negative.”
Folger pointed to Constable Jesse Harris, who serves the Crab Orchard/Broughtontown area of Lincoln County, as a valuable law enforcement presence, especially since Crab Orchard no longer operates its own police department. Harris, who said he has served as a constable off and on for 16 years, believes the community would be less safe and orderly if he was not on the job.
“I do 90 percent of the policing that’s done in Crab Orchard,” Harris said. “I enforce the city ordinances, do traffic control for funerals, visit the school, run radar, arrest people for DUI. I’ve got a lot of respect up there. People tell me all the time they’d hate to see me lose my job.”
Though he has no formal law enforcement training, Harris said he has spent time riding with certified officers and read a lot of related material. Though he’s gotten into situations where weapons have been involved, he said the key to being an effective constable is understanding where your limits are.
“I’ve gotten into some serious things where I’ve taken guns from people, but I’ve never gotten into a high-speed chase or anything like that,” he said. “I’ve gained enough experience to know when I need to call for back up and when I am getting in over my head. To me, if you have any doubts about whether you can handle it, you don’t do it.”
In Kenton County, part of which Koenig represents, a constable served time for impersonating a police officer in 2008. And in 2011, a constable in Jefferson County shot a woman he suspected of shoplifting at a Walmart. The constable, David Whitlock, pleaded guilty to assault under extreme emotional disturbance and entered a diversion program in lieu of a five-year prison sentence.
A 2012 state report commissioned by the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet said the office is outdated. Constables contribute one-fourth of 1 percent of law enforcement activity in the state, the report said. In some counties, constables serve warrants and do little else — but they still have arrest powers.
“(Constables) are part-time. They have other jobs,” John Bizzack, commissioner of the Criminal Justice Department of Training, testified. “The position of constable has been referred to as a hobby because it is part-time.”
Bizzack said police officers in Kentucky are legislatively mandated to receive 840 hours of basic training and an additional 40 hours of training each year. Zero hours of instruction are required for constables.
Representatives from the Kentucky Constable Association did not testify at the hearing. But the organization has opposed previous legislative efforts to abolish the office, pushing for more training instead.
Boyle County Sheriff Marty Elliott said if constables are going to stick around, they need to be trained just like other law enforcement officers. Having untrained, armed constables show up at volitile situations is just trouble waiting to happen, Elliott said.
“You really have the potential for somebody to get hurt,” Elliott said. “We all need to be on the same page.”
Bizzack said training for constables could cost the state millions of dollars and require Kentucky to retool its law enforcement training program to accommodate the duties of the state’s 500-plus constables.
The 2012 report form the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet found that 16 states already have abolished their constable offices. Several other states have passed laws that limit the office’s enforcement powers.
Ben Finley of The Associated Press contributed to this article.