While many states have abandoned the office of constable, Kentucky continues to elect citizens to the antiquated law enforcement role.
Constables are armed with badges and guns, and they can serve warrants, summons or subpoenas. But no job responsibilities are inscribed in state law. They almost always have little or no formal training. And they masquerade as qualified, legitimate police, but in reality, they often pose a threat to public safety.
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.
And their bad behavior has cost counties tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and settlements.
Despite this history, the cycle of constable-initiated misdeeds continued unabated, we found in our 2016 investigation. Because the office is enshrined in the state constitution, constables are responsible to no one except a small slice of a county’s voters every four years. And many voters don’t know what constables do.
Constables are elected in each of the state’s nearly 600 magisterial districts. In Jefferson County, there are three of those districts. All of those positions are on the ballot this year; two of those races are contested.
State law dictates that a candidate for constable must be at least 24 years old, a resident of the state for two years and of the district for 12 months.
And the law specifically exempts constables from the certification — and, thus, from the extensive training — that state and local police, deputy sheriffs and others must obtain.
Kentucky is one of 17 states that elect constables. Sixteen others, including West Virginia, have done away with the office altogether. The remaining states appoint them. Some states require training for constables. Others limit their authority to serving court papers.
Most Kentucky constables don’t receive a salary. Instead, they’re paid for serving various legal documents, such as warrants and subpoenas. But in Jefferson County, by law each of the three constables was paid $9,600 per year by the county in 2016.
All efforts in recent years to bring constables to heel have been unsuccessful.
At least five legislative attempts in recent years to amend the constitution and give counties the option of eliminating constables have gone nowhere.
In Jefferson County’s Magisterial District 1, Republican John Zehnder is seeking re-election to the position he’s held since 2010. Zehnder is a musician and a former Jefferson County reserve deputy sheriff. As the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found in 2016:
“He attended numerous state training courses between 1999 and 2004, state records show. He also was suspended from the sheriff’s office for 90 days in 1996 in connection with an incident that is not specified in agency records. He was reinstated in May 1996 and placed on probation for a year after being demoted in rank from lieutenant to deputy, according to sheriff’s office records.”
Zehnder is being challenged by Democrat Bruce Boggs, a delivery driver who told Courier Journal he has training in criminal investigations.
In District 2, Democrat Mike Thompson is also seeking re-election. He’s served in the position since 2010, and is being challenged by Republican Virginia Woolridge. On a campaign Facebook page, Woolridge says she has “worked with all avenues of Public Safety for over 28 years” and wants to be constable to “serve and protect with sound judgement and without bias.”
In the Third Magisterial District, Democrat Andre Thomas is running unopposed for his first term as constable, virtually guaranteeing his badge, gun and salary.