Position of constable called into question by state agency
By CHRIS HARRIS, CJ Staff Writers Commonwealth Journal
Gene Palmer has lived a life of action. He’s not desperate for more of it.
Palmer, who served in the military for almost three decades, 14 years in the ultra-intense Special Forces, now holds the title of Pulaski County Constable, District 3.
In this role, Palmer is content to deliver court documents to doorsteps. He is elected to the position and allowed to run the blue lights commonly identified with law enforcement atop his car, yet the thrill of the chase isn’t so thrilling to him. Not anymore, at least.
“Though I don’t like to see people run stoplights or speed, at the age of 74, I don’t like to play cops and robbers,” he said. “(Making arrests) is not something I like to do.”
Those constables that do, however, became the epicenter of controversy this week, drawing fire from the commission of the Department of Criminal Justice training following a year-long study that suggested constables are unprepared to engage in law enforcement.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that the study by the Kentucky Law Enforcement Council — made up of sheriffs, police chiefs, and state police — found that the state’s constables (more than 500 of them) performed a quarter of 1 percent of all law-enforcement work and received little to no training for this task.
The report also cites incidents involving constables from around the Commonwealth involving arrests and confrontations which stood to prove hazardous.
The Department of Criminal Justice Training’s Commission John Bizzack stated that these constables “are unregulated and have no standards.”
Here’s the catch: Constables aren’t required by the state to receive law enforcement training, the same way others who carry a badge and make arrests are — and no one pays for them to do so either.
Palmer has opted to do so on his own — at his own expense.
“I went to Richmond and took a 40-hour training course,” he said. “I kept a file up there at the magistrates office. I tried to go once a month (before illness prevented him from doing so in recent months).
“The sheriff’s offices and police department have to pay for their officers to go through that long course,” he added. “If there’s space available, then I could go to that class. I’m registered to go, but if there’s a police department or sheriff’s office that needs that class, then I get booted and they get to stay.”
Palmer said that as far as he knows, Mike Wallace, Pulaski’s District 5 constable, has received similar training — and is the only other one in Pulaski to do so.
Shane Haste, District 2 constable over northern Pulaski communities, hasn’t — and the fact that nobody sponsors him to do so is the key reason why, along with his other responsibilities (since being constable is only a part-time job).
“If I had time, I would,” said Haste. “I just got rid of two businesses I had to run. That’s what pays my bills; being constable doesn’t.
“If they were willing to pay us to go to training like everyone else does, I would be more than happy to go,” he said, “but they don’t pay us anything. If I had the time and money and resources, I would go spend the weekend in Richmond myself, I would probably be glad to, but at this time, that’s not something I want to do.”
But Haste said he doesn’t get too involved in the action of law enforcement either, sticking to document deliveries and occasionally assisting other law enforcement agencies at the scene of a car accident.
Wallace, covering southern Pulaski communities, might be the most visible in that area. He’s even sent press releases to the Commonwealth Journal on numerous occasions describing his arrests and roles in traffic stops — one incident from August of this year even had him involved in a high-speed police chase.
“... Pulaski County Constable Mike Wallace (was) waiting with stop sticks as well,” according to the August 15, 2012 article. “(The suspect) attempted to strike Wallace with his vehicle. ... Wallace managed to jump out of the way ...”
Even Palmer noted that Wallace is someone better suited for the law enforcement side of constable action than himself.
“When someone wants to challenge me, I call Mike (Wallace),” said Palmer. “I’m too old to get in a fight.”
Wallace said that he had “plenty of training” and always presents information about his training sessions to his local magistrate “so he has a copy if someone comes in and says I can’t be doing this — they can go (to the magistrate) and he can show them the documentation that I have been trained.”
Wallace said he’s received survival training, toxicology, basic offer skills and more, and feels that this is crucial to doing his job well.
“If you’re going to do (the job) and you’re going to be productive, you do need training,” he said. “You can’t help (anybody) if you can’t take control of the situation and see it out.”
Rather than being offended by the comments made as a result of the report, Wallace said that he finds it “very offensive that there are people out there pulling the stunts they’re pulling without the training.”
Wallace said he works a schedule similar to any other law enforcement personnel, serving four days a week and taking three days off, and couldn’t place an exact number on the average arrests he makes in a week but noted that they can be plentiful.
“I could go out today and not look for nothing, and you could find five people to book in jail,” he said. “... You meet a lot of good people and a lot of good people in bad situations.”
He said that numerous people on his district call him regularly when they have a problem, and that he’s made arrests “for everything from alcohol intoxication to trafficking in cocaine, trafficking in heroin.”
Palmer noted that Pulaski County’s magistrates do require a certain amount of training hours that constables must complete in order to run the blue lights on their vehicles. Again, however, a constable has to be willing to fork out his own money to do this.
“Any money that I spend buying blue lights or weapons comes out of my own pocket,” he said. “The money I make delivering summonses, that pays for the equipment that I purchase. I get nothing from the county. The gasoline I use comes out of my own pocket.”
Palmer said he’s maintained a “good rapport” with the local sheriff’s office and police department — he covers area in downtown Somerset and up Ky. 2227 towards Science Hill — and Pulaski County Sheriff Todd Wood was generally friendly toward the local constables ... for the most part.
“Here in this community over the years, we’ve been blessed to have constables assist local law enforcement in many ways, but not step on toes or get in the way,” said Wood. “On the other hand, we very much have had constables on the other side of things.
“Probably the most important thing is training and making sure everyone is on the same course, everyone is up to date on new issues that arise that law enforcement has to deal with.”
Even the constables who stay out of the way present a bit of an adversarial relationship with the law enforcement agencies however. Palmer said that the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association “shuts us out” of training opportunities, and that “the sheriff’s association is so strong, there’s no way the (Kentucky Constable Association) can go up against it and fight it.”
He added that while Wood has “never complained” about his role, “when you start thinking about how much money constables could make serving papers and the money that’s taking away from the sheriff’s office,” there’s bound to be conflict.
Wood essentially agreed. “The papers (constables) serve hurt sheriff’s offices,” he said. “With our budget, a great deal of the operating funds through the year come from serving papers. Here, we have a larger sheriff’s office in a larger county, so we still get an ample number of papers. Smaller sheriff’s offices, those are papers they don’t get. That takes money away from them.
“You could probably do the math,” he added. “If they’re serving 100 papers every two weeks and they’re charging $40 (a document), that would be $4,000. You can see what a large number of papers like that could do to a sheriff’s office’s budget.”
Different constables charge different fees per document; there’s no uniform set number. Palmer declined to state what he charges, but touted his record of a less-than-72-hour typical turnaround, with most papers delivered within 24 hours.
Palmer did say that if he sees someone in distress, he’ll “help out,” or turn on his blue lights and lend a hand if he comes across an accident. Wood didn’t dispute the constable’s ability to enter this kind of situation.
“I’m not going to get into what they should or shouldn’t do,” said Wood. “The Constitution speaks to itself. The most important thing is that everyone is very well-trained.”
Wallace said that he’s always worked well with local law enforcement agencies, and feels that he is an asset to them due to his ability to free up more manpower.
“If I could take a (call) to unlock someone’s car door, that frees (a deputy or officer) up to go work a wreck,” said Wallace. “I feel I helped out there. ... I just wanted to try to help the community I grew up in.”
Wood did praise the level of training and preparation constables — as well as any other officers — are likely to get in this area.
“Our state is among the leaders in the country with one of the top five law enforcement academies; that says a lot about Kentucky,” he added. “It’s important to make sure all officers are trained the same and make sure they have the same way of handling situations.
“We need constables to be the same,” Wood continued. “It’s a safety issue for all involved — the constables themselves and the people they’re out serving.”