The Kentucky Constable Association says members can trace the roots of their constitutional office back to medieval England. Perhaps it made sense back then to have some village jack of all trades collect stipends for castrating farm animals, burying dead ones and shooing vagrants off the streets. Trying to keep the tradition relevant in 21st century Kentucky is absurd.
The Associated Press reported last week that a House committee voted 5-1 for a bill to put abolition of the office to a public vote. The Senate State and Local Government Committee, unable to agree on similar legislation, instead voted 7-1 for a substitute measure that would authorize fiscal courts to decide what constables may and may not do.
Abolition is the better choice, but stricter controls might help alleviate some of the abuses attributed to constables around the state. One way or another, something should change.
Anachronisms can be fun. We all titter when governors and other elected leaders have to swear they’ve never fought a duel with deadly weapons, and we may reflect momentarily on the reality that duels were no joke in Kentucky’s earlier days. But our amusement would fade in a hurry if the governor slapped a blue light on his limousine and cruised around town harassing the public. That’s the sort of thing some elected law officers have been accused of. What constables are supposed to do, quaint as their antiquated duties may seem, is less problematic than what they presume to do.
Not that constables are necessarily bad people. Some who’ve held the office in Franklin County have been men of upstanding character. Others have just been characters. At worst, they’ve have faced charges of criminal behavior, on duty or in private life.
The Courier-Journal said Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, introduced her bill proposing to abolish the office because of a Jefferson County incident in which an untrained constable wounded a woman suspected of shoplifting at Walmart. Garrard County Judge-Executive John Wilson, president of the Kentucky Association of Counties, told the Senate panel last week that two constables in his county bought radar guns at Radio Shack and started chasing speeders. Wilson said a constable’s neighbor who complained of blue lights flashing next door in the pre-dawn darkness ended up handcuffed on the ground in front of the officer’s car.
Inadequate job preparation is one of the big concerns. Even county sheriffs, elected officers like constables but subject to training requirements, have joined the effort to rein in constabulary excess.
Appointed police officers, who have to change careers to hold public office, occasionally question the qualifications of lawmen chosen by voters. Last year, when First District Constable Floyd Hockensmith went to the City Commission seeking access to the city police radio frequency, Frankfort Police Chief Walter Wilhoite objected.
“In order to be a constable, you have to be elected,” he told the commission. “That’s it.”
Some people probably wish all police officers were elected. Voting out the cop who wrote you a ticket is a tempting fantasy, but a more accommodating successor might be prone to cooperate with the really bad guys in ways you wouldn’t like a bit. We’ll stick with trained professionals, thank you.