Kentucky Constables: Untrained And Unaccountable
EAST BERNSTADT, Ky.—Night had fallen on March 4 when Laurel County Constable Bobby Joe Smith rolled into the parking lot at the A & B Quick Stop.
Smith had received a tip that Brandon Stanley was among the handful of customers mingling inside the convenience store, on a corner of Ky 3094 across from a barrel-making company and a Disciples of God church.
The convicted felon and the elected constable had played cat-and-mouse two days earlier, when the 30-year-old Stanley ran away when Smith tried to serve him with a warrant. The constable wasn’t about to let that happen again.
Smith walked into the store, drew his gun and positioned himself near the counter at the cash register, according to two sources with firsthand knowledge of the confrontation. This way, Smith could block the double glass doors if Stanley tried to flee once more.
As Stanley moved slowly toward the constable through one of the aisles, unarmed and with both hands in the air, Smith squeezed the trigger twice, the sources said. Both shots struck Stanley in or near the chest. He dropped to the floor and died almost instantly, less than 24 hours before his planned wedding.
The 37-year-old Smith had been a constable for just 15 months. He had no state-approved law enforcement training and mainly worked at a motorcycle dealership. Now, he faces a manslaughter charge and up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Smith serves as the latest in a long line of constables — pseudo police, really — who have run amok in Kentucky for years.
Constables are gods unto themselves, armed with badges and guns but almost always with little or no formal training. They masquerade as qualified, legitimate police, but case after case shows that 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.
Despite this history, the cycle of constable-initiated misdeeds continues unabated. 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.
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.
“It’s incomprehensible that we still have folks out here trying to enforce the laws of the commonwealth with absolutely no training whatsoever,” said former Kentucky State Police Commissioner Rodney Brewer, who retired in February after 34 years with the agency.
“If the office of constable was abolished tomorrow, and all of them were let go, the people of Kentucky would not miss a beat, they would not even know of their absence.”
Drug Dealing, Kidnapping, Burglary Cases
From ex-cons to future felons, just about anyone can be a Kentucky constable. Take Jackie “The Tire Man” Roberts, for example.
Roberts was convicted of three felonies -- two robberies and an assault -- in the 1980s. He also was found guilty of domestic violence in 2009 and 2010.
Nonetheless, Roberts was elected Clay County’s fifth district constable in 2010. He had persuaded Gov. Paul Patton 12 years earlier to restore his right to vote and to hold office. Still, Patton’s order explicitly stated that Roberts was not allowed to have a gun, and the domestic-violence convictions barred it under federal law.
Barely six months after his election, Roberts was under investigation for selling drugs out of his Manchester business, Jack Tires.
An informant wearing a wire bought two hydrocodone pills from Roberts and captured him boasting of sleeping with a gun and pointing it at someone. Police later found more drugs and a gun at his shop. Roberts never finished his term and is currently serving a 19 ½-year federal prison sentence for drug trafficking and unlawfully possessing a firearm.
In 2012, Fayette County Deputy Constable Dannie Ray Pendygraft was sentenced to three years’ probation for official misconduct and promoting prostitution, a felony.
The U.S. Department of Justice also accused him last September of violating federal housing law by subjecting a former boarding house tenant to sexual advances. The DOJ alleged that Pendygraft touched the tenant and requested sexual favors from her while wearing his constable’s badge and carrying a gun. Pendygraft paid a $5,000 fine last September to settle the case.
In nearby Franklin County, former Constable Thomas Banta was indicted last month on charges that he ran a prostitution ring out of his private security company, and also kidnapped a teenager while posing as an actual law enforcement officer.
In April, Rockcastle County Constable Frank Maples was charged with terroristic threatening after he allegedly said he would shoot anyone who attempted to take him into custody in connection with a domestic dispute. Instead, Maples turned himself in and is free on bond, according to court records.
Maples isn’t the first constable in the small southeastern Kentucky county to run afoul of the law. In 2002, Thomas F. Bullen was sentenced to 10 years in prison for conspiring to traffic in drugs while in office.
Western Kentucky also has had its share of alleged misconduct. Webster County Constable Dennis A. Shelton was indicted last October on felony charges of sexual abuse and burglary after a Sebree woman said he forced his way into her home and fondled her. Shelton pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial, according to court records.
And Muhlenberg County Constable William Parker was placed in a diversion program last December after allegedly impersonating a public servant and attempting to repossess a woman’s car in adjoining Hopkins County -- where Parker had no jurisdiction. Charges against Parker will be dismissed in December if he does not have any other violations of law between now and then, court records show.
Office Enshrined In State Constitution
The office of constable is enshrined in Kentucky’s 1850 constitution, with the meager requirements for office contained in state law: 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.
Constables are elected in each of the state’s nearly 600 magisterial districts.
Most Kentucky constables don’t receive a salary. Instead, they’re paid for serving various legal documents, such as warrants and subpoenas. Each of the six total constables in Jefferson and Fayette counties is allowed to receive $9,600 per year from local government.
State law specifically exempts constables from the certification -- and, thus, from the extensive training -- that state and local police, deputy sheriffs and others must obtain.
By law, those peace officers must meet 17 pre-employment standards, ranging from physical agility and education requirements to background investigations and drug testing. Once over that hurdle, they have to complete more than 23 weeks of basic training at a school certified or recognized by the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council. And they must undergo 40 hours of annual in-service training.
Kentucky State Police cadets, as well as Louisville and Lexington police recruits, receive more than 1,000 hours of basic training.
The state’s constables, by contrast, don’t have to do any of that. Just one constable, in Anderson County, is a fully certified law enforcement officer, according to the state Department of Criminal Justice Training.
In addition to constables, county sheriffs, coroners, jailers and a few others also are exempt from the state’s training requirements. But sheriffs typically get trained once they’re elected, and coroners and jailers rarely try to exercise functions typically performed by police -- and sometimes by constables -- such as making traffic stops and arrests.
Jason Rector, an Adair County constable and president of the Kentucky Constable Association, thinks they serve an important role, but he acknowledges that they need some training. He thinks a 40-hour, “basic skills” class, plus another 40 hours of instruction on the constitution and the state penal code, would suffice.
“We are no more of a liability than the sheriffs, the coroners and the jailers are,” Rector said.
Rector believes constables don’t need nearly as much training as certified law enforcement personnel. He also argues that constables -- himself included -- have other jobs that won’t allow them to take months off to undergo comprehensive training.
John Bizzack, former commissioner of the Department of Criminal Justice Training, rejected the proposal for minimal constable training as “preposterous.”
“There is no practical outcome of giving abbreviated training to constables to cause them to behave as if they had 18 weeks,” Bizzack said. “Why would we want peace officers with the same authority to be trained less?”
J. Michael Brown, former secretary of the state Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, also strongly disagrees that minimal training for constables is good enough.
In 2012, Brown commissioned a report on constables by the Department of Criminal Justice Training, which concluded that they had outlived their usefulness. He credits mandatory, extensive training for helping the state avoid “some of the tragic instances from a law enforcement side that we’ve seen in other jurisdictions.”
“Everyone recognizes that you have to have that initial training and in-service training,” Brown said. “And I don’t think that 40 hours of selected courses is going to substitute for that and put them (constables) on the same level as the peace officer.”
Phil Hazlett, former president of the National Constables and Marshals Association, said the rules governing constables across the country are nearly as varied as the number of states that have them.
“We’re sort of like the stepchild of the civil and criminal justice process,” Hazlett said. “One of the main goals of the association is to increase the training and professionalism of constables nationwide.”
There’s still some work to do on that front.
In Alabama, a constable remained in office after pleading guilty to trafficking in cocaine. Another was arrested last year on a murder charge.
In Pennsylvania, two deputy constables were accused in 2014 of handcuffing a woman over an unpaid parking ticket, and then dragging her out of the house by the feet while her daughter and grandson watched. The constables were found guilty of assault, placed on probation and removed from office, according to news accounts.
And in 2008, an Associated Press investigation found widespread misconduct by Pennsylvania constables including stealing money, molesting children, having sex with prisoners, threatening people with weapons and impersonating police.
Behind the Wheel, Blue Lights And Reckless Pursuits
In addition to sometimes breaking the law, some Kentucky constables have periodically endangered public safety by engaging in high-speed chases that violate basic police protocol.
“Pursuit driving is one of the most serious, deadliest and riskiest instances that could occur in the law enforcement world,” former KSP Commissioner Brewer said. “When you have someone that has no training, who just engages in a pursuit, that’s a recipe for disaster.”
In Laurel County, court records show that Bobby Joe Smith was involved in several potentially serious incidents while playing police during 2015, his first year on the job.
After pulling over a driver for not using a turn signal, Smith chased a fleeing passenger on foot through a junkyard. Both men ended up scuffling on the ground, according to court records. Another pursuit turned out badly when Smith’s car collided with the one he was trying to stop. In yet another chase, a motorist Smith was chasing ran several cars off the road before landing in a ditch.
In Graves County, a constable was charged with wanton endangerment in 2012 after he attempted to make a traffic stop by shining a spotlight into another car, then getting in front of the other vehicle and abruptly braking to force the driver to stop.
“It was a dangerous situation. We could have had people seriously injured or killed in it. There’s no doubt about that,” Graves County Chief Deputy Sheriff Davant Ramage said. The constable subsequently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and agreed to resign.
Also in 2012, an arrest by a Madison County constable was thrown out of court after the driver’s attorney challenged the constable’s use of blue lights on his car -- which, by state law, can be done only with the local fiscal court’s approval.
One constable who should know the blue lights law, the Kentucky Constable Association’s president and training director, has himself violated it. When reporters interviewed Jason Rector on April 20, he had just testified in Adair District Court in connection with a recent vehicle pursuit.
Michael Harris, the driver Rector tried to stop, eventually left the road, crashed through a fence and into a child’s treehouse, according to the constable’s report of the incident.
Harris was charged with multiple offenses. But Rector also apparently broke the law. During the April court hearing, he twice referred under oath to the “blue lights” he used to pursue Harris.
Under state law, constables are allowed to use blue lights, which are common to police vehicles, only “upon approval of the fiscal court.” Adair Judge-Executive Michael Lee Stephens said no such approval has been granted.
“If he did (use blue lights), he did it himself,” Stephens said. “It did not come through the court.”
Rector refused to respond to questions about the blue lights on his car, or whether he thought he’d had adequate -- if any -- training in high-speed pursuits.
The sum total of Rector’s state-approved law enforcement training: A 40-hour “basic skills class” he took in 2008, and another the following year on field sobriety testing. He’s had no state training since, Department of Criminal Justice Training records show.
He also identifies himself as “Col. Jason Rector” on the KCA’s website and he lists his honorary Kentucky Colonel commission in his resume.
On the website, Rector looks very much the professional police officer, with a uniform including tan shirt, dark tie (neatly tucked in), badge, “constable” shoulder patch (which can be purchased online for $3.50), nameplate and a “campaign hat” of the sort worn by Kentucky State Police and other law enforcement agencies.
In addition to endangering public safety, constables’ bad behavior has cost counties tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and payouts.
Jessamine County’s insurer paid $40,000 in March to settle a claim against former Constable Chauncey Tudor.
Jefferson County already has paid more than $37,000 to the attorneys of former Constable David Whitlock, who shot Tammy Ortiz in a Walmart parking lot in 2011. More legal bills likely are coming, and the county also could have to pay damages to Ortiz.
Another pending lawsuit, filed by a farm worker who sued Monroe County Constable Darrell Jackson and others last October, alleges that Jackson wrongfully searched and arrested him in 2014. The worker, Miguel Panzo-Panzo, was jailed for more than five weeks, until the charges were dismissed later that year after Jackson failed to appear in court.
And if Smith is convicted of Stanley’s death at the Laurel County A & B Quick Stop in March, a civil suit seeking compensation probably would result.
Failed Reform Efforts
All efforts in recent years to bring constables to heel have been unsuccessful.
The state Department of Criminal Justice Training’s 264-page report issued in 2012 polled police, sheriffs, county attorneys and county judge-executives to determine how they felt about constables.
Their overwhelming consensus: The “office of constable is a tenuous anachronism that should have been relegated to at least a role with no law enforcement authority, if not abolished outright, years ago.”
The report also determined that constables perform only a tiny fraction -- .02 percent -- of all actual law enforcement work, suggesting that their misdeeds are grossly out of proportion to any contribution they might make to public safety.
“The office of constable serves no value to Kentucky law enforcement, (but) exposes the citizens of Kentucky to unnecessary risk of injury or violation of rights,” the report concluded.
It was distributed to all 138 members of the legislature, and others. But after an initial flurry of press coverage, public interest in the report and its findings quickly waned.
“There was very little traction, very little legislatively that was addressed,” former KSP Commissioner Brewer said. “I can only surmise that, like many things in Kentucky and America, until it hits home, and it becomes personalized, perhaps with someone in a powerful position, legislative or otherwise, it will not really get the attention it deserves.”
Brewer offered this analogy about the danger he believes constables pose:
“Imagine that your loved one is suffering from a heart attack and in good faith you pick up the phone and call 911. On the way to the hospital, you find out that the EMTs and the paramedics that responded had absolutely no training whatsoever. They literally walked in, straight out of high school, just because they wanted to help people that were having heart attacks. How would that make you feel?”
At least five legislative attempts in recent years to amend the constitution and give counties the option of eliminating constables also have gone nowhere. State Rep. Adam Koenig, a Republican from Erlanger in northern Kentucky who has sponsored or co-sponsored the bills, said he’s frustrated.
Some legislators who represent multiple counties may have more than a dozen constables in their district, and Koenig said there is “a lot of political pull in those families. It’s a difficult hill to climb.”
Many local politicians, as well as some of his legislative colleagues, have told Koenig they support his efforts, he said, but “not everybody wants to take on guys who carry guns.”
“I know if I got a vote on the house floor and it was anonymous, it would pass overwhelmingly,” Koenig said. “Legislators tell me all the time, ‘It’s a good bill, we should probably pass it, but I can’t vote for it.’ That’s the frustrating part.”
Some county officials support constables on the grounds that they provide some semblance of law enforcement presence in rural areas where there often is little. Koenig said he hasn’t pressed those officials in the past to assist in his efforts to reform the system, “but they’ll be pushed this year.”
Nor did Smith’s slaying of Stanley generate significant public discussion about constables, much less any outrage. Protests of the sort that have erupted in other states following questionable fatal shootings by law enforcement were nonexistent in Laurel County.
Indeed, when asked about the incident, numerous officials, including several state legislators, said they knew little or nothing about it. None who had heard of it expressed alarm, or indignation.
Laurel County Manslaughter Case
That could change if the evidence against Bobby Joe Smith is ever laid out in Laurel circuit court.
In April, Smith spoke briefly with reporters who approached him at his home, a couple of miles from the store where the shooting occurred.
He declined to discuss what happened at the store, but said he’s not doing any constable-related work while his case is pending. He said he has support from “the whole community except the ones that’s on drugs.”
Then, after his mother intervened and reminded Smith that his attorney had told him not to discuss anything related to the shooting, he threatened to turn loose two large, penned-up barking dogs if the reporters were not off his property in “five seconds.”
On the night Stanley was shot dead, his fiancee, Tracie Whittymore, said he called her shortly after 9 p.m. “He told me he loved me,” Whittymore said, and that he planned to hang out at the A & B for a while before returning to work at the barrel-making operation across the road.
She and Stanley had met during high school in Clay County. When he first proposed marriage, she resisted. He was outgoing and fun to be with, but a drug problem and long criminal history were getting the better of him.
She said she agreed to marry him because Stanley seemed to have cleaned up his act. Shortly after his call, Whittymore was scrolling through her Facebook page when she learned of his death by reading condolences from a friend, just hours before they had planned to go to Tennessee and take their vows.
Reeling and in disbelief, Whittymore said she rushed to the A & B and found the store teeming with police officers. Smith was standing outside, alone. Whittymore had never before laid eyes on him.
“I’ve got a lot of hatred,” Whittymore said, gazing down at the engagement and wedding rings she still wears on her left hand. “I’d like to see him (Smith) go away for a long time. I would like to see him in the prison until the day that he dies.”
Prior to the shooting, Whittymore said she knew virtually nothing about constables. She thought “the only thing they was good for was directing (traffic at) funerals and getting wild animals off the road.”
Now she knows that they also can carry guns and try to arrest people. And she thinks that’s wrong. Terribly wrong. Sometimes, even fatally wrong.