By John L. Ross / Staff Writer
Constables are outdated and irrelevant as an arm of the law — that’s according to a six-month study released by the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council this week.
But it’s an old argument, according to Kentucky Constable Association Vice President Edward Sparks, who feels constables are a necessity in the state.
“(The state legislature) tried to abolish us last year, and it didn’t go through,” Sparks said. “There is absolutely a need for constables in Kentucky.”
One particular concern reviewed by the Law Enforcement Council was legal problems arising from constables, including Knox County constable Carl Bolton, who was arrested in January for suspicion of driving under the influence. But Sparks feels constables are not the only ones getting into hot water. “We’ve had problems with constables around the state,” he said. “But you can do a little research and find state troopers who were in trouble. You can find sheriff’s deputies in trouble. You can even find sheriffs in trouble.
“And you can find police officers in trouble, too.”
Another concern addressed by the study involves constable training versus police or sheriff training.
“The fight, or the discussion, between the constables and the sheriffs is the fact constables are given the same powers as sheriff deputies,” he said. “That’s always going to be a fight between the two (agencies).”
According to Section 101 of Kentucky’s Constitution, “Constables shall possess the same qualifications as Sheriffs, and their jurisdictions shall be coextensive with the counties in which they reside. Constables now in office shall continue in office until their successors are elected and qualified.” This portion was passed and approved in September 1891, and no revisions have ever been made.
However, Sparks said monies are set aside by the state legislature annually for law enforcement training but that constables often get overlooked. “We agree that (those officers) out on the street protecting citizens should receive the training first,” he said. “But constables are most times denied training at all.
“Every police department, sheriff’s department, constables… all have money appropriated for training but we (constables) never get to use it.”
He said it costs approximately $3,000 per law enforcement official to receive updated training.
Whitley County Sheriff Colan Harrell has publicly vocalized his opposition to the office, primarily because of training. “You need to be trained to do the job you have,” Harrell said. “Any professional police officer or anyone in law enforcement should agree with the same philosophy.”
He explained that training currently includes 18 weeks of criminal justice to be a certified law enforcement official.
“I am not condemning the office of constable — not at all,” Harrell said. “(We’ve) had no incidents with our constables.
“They have worked right with us. We are able to work well with them without problems.”
But he also feels citizens need more. “The public would be better served if they (the constables) were academically certified,” said Harrell.
There are four constables elected in Whitley County.
Laurel County Second District Constable David Lanham feels there’s good cooperation between the sheriff’s office and the constables.
There are currently six constables in Laurel County.
“Personally, I do not have trouble. They (the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department) support us pretty good,” Lanham said. “But now the state police pay no attention to us.”
Whitley County First District Constable Lonnie Foley said he has no trouble working with Whitley County’s sheriffs. However, he does believe training is necessary. “If (someone) were elected today, they would need to be trained,” Foley said. “I (was with) the Williamsburg Police Department in the ‘70s and have worked (in law enforcement) ever since.”
Foley has two sons in state law enforcement and another son working as a sheriff’s deputy. “They let me know the things I need to know,” he said. “I’ve kept up with the laws and done what any professional in any job would do.”
He does feel constables are necessary. “They (sheriffs’ departments) need us, in my opinion,” Foley said. “You can never have too much law enforcement in any county.”
But not all law enforcement agencies agree.
In a letter to Justice and Public Safety Cabinet Secretary J. Michael Brown, Department of Criminal Justice Training Commissioner John W. Bizzack states, “Our six-month study determined an overwhelming majority of criminal justice officials in the Commonwealth agree the office of constable should be either abolished or limited in law enforcement functions.
“Statistical analysis demonstrates law enforcement by constables represents only one-fourth of one percent of annual law enforcement work,” Bizzack continued. “Constables deliver insignificant law enforcement activity to the Commonwealth.
Whitley County Second District Constable Ron “Bubba” Bowling disagrees and feels the study was not proper. “This thing is biased,” he said. “It is not a true reflection of the Commonwealth.”
He noted that constables are “not POLICE officers, but PEACE officers,” adding that many of the civil service duties performed by constables “would fall back onto the deputies if the office were abolished.”
Bowling’s biggest concern involves sheriff deputy responsibilities versus the constable’s job. “We’re not doing the same job they are,” he said. “We perform civil service for the community.”
He explained his job can be difficult. “We have a very negative job,” Bowling said. “When we’re knocking on your door, it’s usually because you’ve been sued in court, or you’ve been served divorce papers, or you’re facing an eviction, or we’ll have an arrest warrant.”
He agrees that training is necessary. “We’re not opposed to training,” he said. “We feel strongly about getting trained on penal code updates and officer safety.”
He explained that constables and sheriff’s deputies require the same training for their job whether elected or hired. “In order to appear on the ballot, we are required to have the same qualifications as any other (law enforcement official),” Bowling said. “So since we have to have the same credentials, lack of training is not a fair argument.”
Bowling added since constables are elected that the citizenry should have been polled. “The people should have their opinions heard,” he said. “In the end, the citizens need to decide — not government dictate how it should be.
“We are elected by the citizens we serve.”
The survey polled chiefs of police, the Kentucky state police, county attorneys, judge executives and county sheriffs and asked for suggestions for the constable’s role. Of the state police who responded, 42 percent feel the office should be abolished; 47 percent of county attorneys feel abolishment is necessary; 60 percent of responding sheriff’s agree with abolishing the office; 54 percent of judge executives and 35 percent of police chiefs favor abolishment. Approximately 1,400 responses were received.