Police power, constables a toxic mix

Recruits at police forces in Kentucky — state police, local departments or county sheriffs — must meet an array of standards before they are hired.

Within their first year in office, they must complete a 24-week training course, and have at least 40 hours of training each year they serve.

This came about in 1998 when the Police Officer Professional Standards Act was passed to improve the professional standards of police officers throughout Kentucky and thereby make citizens safer.

None of these requirements apply to elected constables, an anachronistic force of about 500 enshrined in Kentucky’s 1891 Constitution.

Anyone can run for constable who is 24, has lived in Kentucky for two years and in that constable district for one year. Once elected, they have police authority, and can — with no training or oversight — carry and wield arms to exercise it.

That is something the Kentucky General Assembly must end in the next session. Abolishing constables, while desirable, would require a constitutional amendment but legislators have the power to get them out of law enforcement.

As the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting detailed in “Kentucky Constables: Untrained and Unaccountable,” constables often cause more trouble than they solve and sometimes have checkered histories themselves.

The results of having what KyCIR terms “pseudo police” roaming Kentucky range from toxic and criminal — constables who sell drugs and run prostitutes — to lethal.

In March, Bobby Joe Smith, a constable with no state-approved training whose regular job was at a motorcycle dealership, shot and killed unarmed Brandon Stanley. Smith was trying to serve a warrant on Stanley. Witnesses say Stanley was walking toward Smith with his hands in the air when he was shot twice. Smith now faces a manslaughter charge.

Last month, Franklin County Constable Thomas Banta was indicted on charges of running a prostitution ring out of his private security company.

The list goes on and on. Sometimes counties foot the bill for the misdeeds of these pseudo police. Jefferson County has paid over $37,000 to attorneys in a case involving a constable who shot an alleged shoplifter in her car in a Walmart parking lot. The fees will continue to mount and a settlement with the victim is also likely. In March, Jessamine County’s insurer paid $40,000 to settle a claim against a former constable.

These are only a few of many cases detailed by KyCIR and in a 2012 report on constables conducted by a study group appointed by then-Justice Secretary J. Michael Brown. He asked them to determine if “constable as a law-enforcement function” is essential to Kentucky. The answer was an emphatic “no.”

Those polled on Brown’s question who agreed with “no” included 90 percent of county judge-executives, 80 percent of police chiefs, 89.6 percent of sheriffs, 86.8 percent of county attorneys and 86.7 percent of state police officers.

The 2012 report gave rise to legislation proposing either constitutional amendments to abolish constables or allow individual counties to do so, and legislation to limit their authority or to allow individual counties to do so. None of it passed.

It is hard to know the politics behind this inaction. Legislators may have other priorities, or elected constables and their families may just be groups they don’t want to offend.

In either case, voters this fall can and should press legislative candidates to pledge to support removing these untrained and unaccountable constables from the law enforcement business in Kentucky.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader