Investigations

Lexington officials are considering reining in the county’s constables, an elected office that has come under scrutiny across the state following years of misconduct.

An Urban County Council committee created a subgroup Tuesday to assess what Fayette County’s three constables are doing and whether changes are needed.

Councilman Kevin Stinnett requested the review in June, shortly after an investigation by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE-3 News detailed long-standing problems involving constables statewide. (Read “Kentucky Constables: Untrained And Unaccountable“)

Jennifer Mossotti, chair of the council’s planning and public safety committee, said earlier this week that the evaluation process may take several months but that eventual changes to the duties of constables are likely. Several council members have expressed “deep concerns” about constables, Mossotti said, and one possible remedy is limiting constables’ authority to only serving court papers.

General KY Constable Association LogoThe office of constable has been enshrined in the state constitution since 1850, and constables are responsible to no one except a small slice of a county’s voters every four years. Many voters don’t know what constables do.

The KyCIR/WAVE-3 investigation found that constables in Kentucky are gods unto themselves, armed with badges and guns but almost always possessing little or no formal training.

Some cruise around the county pulling drivers over or engaging in unnecessary and dangerous high-speed pursuits. Some use unauthorized blue lights. Others make questionable arrests that later collapse in court. Many have faced criminal charges of their own.

Laurel County Constable Bobby Joe Smith was indicted on a manslaughter charge after fatally shooting an allegedly unarmed man in a convenience store in March. Smith’s case is set for trial Jan. 4. Like most constables, Smith had no state-approved law-enforcement training.

Kentucky is one of just 17 states that elect constables, one in each of the state’s nearly 600 magisterial districts.

A 2012 report by the state Department of Criminal Justice Training, supported by top law-enforcement officials, said the office of constable had outlived its usefulness. But the Kentucky legislature has repeatedly declined to rein in constables.

Lexington Police Chief Mark Barnard thinks it’s time for local government to step in.

“Do you want to get pulled over by someone in a Toyota Camry, if that constable doesn’t even know how to write a ticket, or about the legality of a traffic stop, or have training on search and seizure?” Barnard asked.

Barnard said his preference, shared by Fayette County Sheriff Kathy Witt, would be to do away with the office. But that would require a constitutional amendment. At least five legislative attempts in recent years to begin that process — with the goal to give counties the option of eliminating constables — have gone nowhere.

The best alternative, in Barnard’s view, would be for Fayette County government to restrict constables’ authority to simply serving court papers. Witt favors eliminating even that role.

“In Lexington we don’t need more law enforcement,” Barnard said. “If we do, we will continue to grow the police department.”

Added Witt: “The office of constable has long outlived its usefulness. I know that they stand on the premise that they have been doing basically the same thing since the early 1800s. And I feel like in a modern society, surely we are doing things differently and better than we were doing in the 1800s.”

Jason Rector, an Adair County constable and president of the Kentucky Constable Association, did not respond to a request for comment.

Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at rdunlop@kycir.org or (502) 814.6533.

This story was reported by WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

R.G. Dunlop is an investigative reporter whose work has exposed government corruption and resulted in numerous reforms.