Kentucky voters will get to decide if they want to do away with county constables if either of two bills proposed by a pair of Jefferson County legislators is approved by the General Assembly.
State Rep. Joni Jenkins, D-Shively, and state Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, have both proposed legislation that would amend the Kentucky Constitution to abolish the office of constable. If either bill passes, the question will be posed to voters in a ballot referendum.
Kentucky's 1850 Constitution created the office of constable and requires the election of one constable in each magisterial district. Warren County has six constables.
"Constables play a vital role throughout our state in deterring crime in eyes and boots on the ground," said Rick Bruce, Warren County's District Four constable.
Bruce also is president of the Warren County Constable Association, a group he and two other Warren County constables created for themselves and their deputy constables last year to ensure that members conduct themselves professionally and adhere to the Constable's Code of Ethics as established by the National Constables & Marshals Association.
Constables are recognized under state law as law enforcement officers. Unlike police officers, constables are elected but are not paid. They pay for their own training, uniforms, cars, gasoline, weapons and other equipment. Constables can charge fees for certain services, such as serving legal papers or taking patients from places such as LifeSkills to mental health facilities. But those fees typically don't cover the costs associated with the tasks.
Both Jenkins and Denton cite a shooting in Louisville last year that involved a Jefferson County constable as the final straw in inspiring their legislation.
"I'm very concerned that once these folks are elected, they are automatically peace officers, and many of them have no training whatsoever," Jenkins said. She introduced her bill in the House on Jan. 11, and on Jan. 12 the bill was sent to the Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee.
Denton's legislation was introduced Jan. 3 in the Senate to the State and Local Government Committee. She sponsored the bill to address problems she sees around the state in which constables' actions have been called into question. But Denton admits that the Louisville shooting incident was the "straw that broke the camel's back."
On Nov. 2, Jefferson County Constable David Whitlock allegedly shot a woman in the parking lot of a Walmart in the Pleasure Ridge Park area of Louisville after he said she tried to run over him with her car. The woman survived.
Meanwhile, in Warren County, District Two Constable Charles Russell was indicted Sept. 7 on charges of second-degree forgery and first-degree official misconduct. Russell has not been tried on those charges yet.
"What my feeling is on it is, there have been some problems in Louisville, and they're trying to take it out on all the constables rather than take it out on an individual situation," Bruce said. "If a sheriff in some part of Kentucky got in trouble, would they do away with all the sheriffs? The answer is no.
"The constables play an important role in their communities."
Denton doesn't expect her proposed legislation to pass as it is currently written. But the bill is a "starting point" for discussion about the issue, she said.
Jenkins has asked Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway to weigh in on the issue of what action, if any, the legislature can take to limit the scope of authority that constables have in their communities, or to place requirements on who can seek the office.
"I would like to see them not be automatically put in the position of peace officer," Jenkins said.
Someone with no training being handed arrest powers by virtue of a popular vote "I don't think is appropriate," she said.
The Kentucky Sheriffs Association is neither for nor against the position of constable, executive director and retired Fleming County Sheriff Jerry Wagner said. However, Wagner said, potential solutions to the issue include eliminating the office, limiting constable's duties or requiring constables to complete certain training elements.
"Our position is that we feel that law enforcement are charged with protecting the citizens and property and should be properly trained and accountable," Wagner said. "There's no qualifications. There's no training, no standards and there's no oversight (of constables). Whatever it takes to fix that problem is how we need to pursue it. When I say ‘we,' I'm not talking about sheriffs. I'm talking about citizens. I don't think anybody wants untrained, unsupervised individuals policing our communities."
- The Associated Press contributed information to this report.