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A proposed bill that would abolish the elected office of constable awaits lawmakers when they return to Frankfort next month.
Sen. Julie Denton, R-Jefferson County, pre-filed BR 449, which, if passed, would ask voters to amend Kentucky’s constitution and do away with constables.
Constables are county peace officers who are elected every four years the same as other county officials such as judge/executive, clerk, county attorney, sheriff, jailer, coroner, and surveyor.
There is a constable in each of the four Casey County magisterial districts — Roger Garrett in District 1, Joe Nutgrass in District 2, Sonny Emerson serves in District 3, and John Brown is in the fourth district.
As unpaid law enforcement officers who furnish their own vehicles and equipment, constables have the same arrest powers as sheriff’s deputies.
But while sheriff’s deputies must be trained and certified in law enforcement, the office of constable requires no training and that’s where the problem lies, Denton said.
A series of incidents this year involving constables has brought renewed attention to their role in the state.
The most recent occurred on Nov. 2 when Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock allegedly shot a woman in the parking lot of a Pleasure Ridge Park Wal-Mart in Louisville.
At issue is whether Whitlock used unnecessary force to try and stop the woman who he said allegedly tried to run him over with her car.
However, Denton said that filing the bill didn’t stem from the Nov. 2 incident but from problems that have arisen during the past few years.
“This issue has been talked about in the general assembly for years because of problems with constables,” Denton said. “We’ve got to deal with these rogue constables in the state.”
Coffman divided on issue
Casey County Sheriff Jerry Coffman said that he sees both sides of the issue.
“I see where there could be some problem with constables without any training,” Coffman said, adding that he would like to see them get training.
“People may look down on them because they don’t have any training,” Coffman said.
But on the other hand, Coffman said that a good group of constables can be a tremendous asset in a large county like Casey County.
Coffman said that on the rare occasion that his department is short-handed, the constables are always ready to fill in.
“We’ve got the best set of constables we’ve had in a long time and we get a lot of help from them,” Coffman said. “They work real good with us.”
Constables weigh in
Brown, elected in 2006, worked as a Liberty police officer in the early 1990s.
However, he quit before he was required to go to the police academy for training.
Brown said that he would like to get training but the required 18-week course at Richmond’s law enforcement training center isn’t possible.
“I would get the training but I cannot afford to take 18 weeks off,” Brown said.
The soft-spoken constable said that he wished people knew what he did week-in-and-week out.
“A lot of things constables do, nobody else sees,” Brown said, adding that constables assist sheriff’s deputies, do traffic control at accident scenes, stop drunk drivers and serve legal documents, among other duties.
Nutgrass said that he averages about 10 calls a week ranging from regular traffic stops to handling domestic disputes.
Nutgrass said that he’s taken a couple of training courses in the use of a Tazer and in handling legal issues.
Like Brown, Nutgrass sees his role as one of support to assist deputies when they need backing up on a call.
“I save the county a lot of money,” Nutgrass said.
Constables group speaks
Jason Rector, president of the Kentucky Constable Association in Louisville, said that legislators have tried unsuccessfully to abolish the office of constable several times in the past.
“The body of legislators in Kentucky has more important things to do than trying to get rid of constitutionally elected officials,” Rector said, adding that sheriff’s also don’t have to have law enforcement training or certification.
Rector said of the 569 constable positions in the state, about 475 are filled. Of those, approximately 250 were elected for the first time last year.
As far as constable training is concerned, Rector acknowledged that there were problems with some constables that could be traced back to a lack of training.
However, the KCA is trying to educate constables on critical issues.
“Back in January, we had a weekend conference for constables to educate them on the statutes,” Rector said, adding that more than 100 constables attended the two-day training event in Louisville.
Rector said that although the KCA would like to offer more training sponsored by the state, it may not happen due to how some legislators view constables.
“We’re asking for training but we’re being treated like a red-headed stepchild,” Rector said.
But whereas in the past the proposed bills to abolish the office of constable have failed, this time a different route is being proposed.
KACO supports bill
Garrard County Judge/Executive John Wilson serves as the president of the Kentucky Association of Counties (KACO).
Wilson said that while it’s difficult to amend the state’s constitution because there are usually only two constitutional amendments on a ballot, KACO is proposing that the legislature take a road less traveled in stripping constables of their powers.
“KACO has taken the position to statutorily remove all power and duties from the office of constable,” Wilson said.
In other words, a bill would be passed in the legislature where constables could still be elected but would have no arrest powers or legal duties as peace officers.
“Constables are a tremendous liability to counties — they’re untrained officers with arrest powers and this is a recipe for disaster,” Wilson said.
In addition, the KACO president said that counties pay higher liability insurance premiums because of the threat the county faces in getting sued for a constable’s actions.
Wilson also said of the 10 organizations affiliated with KACO — the Kentucky League of Cities, The Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, The Kentucky Police Chief’s Association,
among others — every organization supports the KACO initiative.
There has not yet been a bill filed in Frankfort but Wilson said legislators are listening to KACO and its affiliate organizations.
“This is one of KACO’s top six issues,” Wilson said.