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Bill limiting powers of Ky. constables advances in legislature

J. Tyler Franklin

A bill banning newly elected Kentucky constables from exercising police powers passed out of a Kentucky House committee Wednesday.

Constables have a long history of controversy in Kentucky, including questionable arrests, dangerous high-speed chases and criminal charges of their own. Efforts to reform the office have failed in recent years, but supporters hope a new bipartisan proposal will succeed during this year’s lawmaking session.

Under House Bill 239, future constables would be required to get training in order to have full police powers like the ability to arrest people or make traffic stops. Current constables wouldn’t be affected, even if they don’t have training.

Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger and sponsor of the measure, said constables should have more training if they are going to use police powers.

“It’s important for the safety of our communities and trained law enforcement officers that anyone with a badge and a gun who can take you into custody, initiate a pursuit, or even use deadly force is someone who is instructed on how and when to use these tactics,” Koenig said.

Constables are elected officials who mostly serve subpoenas, direct traffic and provide funeral escorts. But in parts of the state, some constables act like pseudo-police officers despite lacking any formal training.

A 2017 story from the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, detailed a long list of misdeeds committed by constables in recent years, including convictions for drug dealing, kidnapping and burglary.

Last year, two constables in Somerset were convicted in federal court for planting drugs on people in order to create a pretense for searches and arrests.

There are more than 500 constables in the state, one for each of Kentucky’s magisterial districts, but Koenig said only two of them have gone through the same training as police officers.

Previous versions of the billwould have amended the state Constitution to totally abolish the office, but the effort failed after pushback from local officials.

Koenig said he “downshifted” from that proposal, but the new bill would still do a lot to reform the office.

“That was the ultimate goal, to make sure untrained individuals weren’t able to exercise these powers,” Koenig said.

Rep. Mary Lou Marzian, a Democrat from Louisville, voted in favor of the measure.

“When you read through the infractions over the last five years, it’s pretty horrendous what these folks have done,” Marzian said.

Becca Schimmel rejoined WKU Public Radio as a reporter covering criminal justice in 2021, prior to that she was the economics and infrastructure reporter for the Ohio Valley ReSource from 2016 to 2020. Schimmel previously worked as a criminal justice reporter for the Gulf States Newsroom in Jackson, Ms. She also spent time working as a producer for Lake Effect, a public affairs show on WUWM in Milwaukee, WI. Schimmel earned her undergraduate in journalism from Murray State University and has her MBA through Western Kentucky University.
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