Pennsylvania's constables, a loose collection of elected and appointed peace officers, have no administrative oversight, are rarely disciplined and carry the burden of a recent history checkered with shootings, assaults and inappropriate behavior.
While most do their jobs quietly and effectively, a handful of Pennsylvania's 1,195 registered constables who have arrest powers and authority to carry firearms have been dangerous and unstable, reinforcing a lingering image of trigger-happy and undisciplined lawmen.
Concern about constable behavior flared in May, when constables serving warrants for unpaid parking tickets to a man in Allentown shot three dogs, killing two.
But that's just the latest black eye. In recent years, area constables have committed sexual and aggravated assaults, stolen money owed to district courts and drawn guns on children and other innocent people.
The complaints about constables became so numerous a few years ago that Pennsylvania's district attorneys adopted a resolution supporting legislation to govern their conduct.
The idea, said one district attorney, was to get a handle on the ''cowboys'' in the legal system. Nothing came of the district attorneys' resolution, however.
Some district justices and others remain concerned that constables have no oversight. They say constables should be subject to a review board or some other mechanism to investigate complaints and discipline offenders.
''My opinion about constables they should all be taken out,'' said Ken Schardien, a Palmerton man who saw a constable point a loaded gun at his unarmed friend's head two years ago.
The constable had been looking for Schardien, who said he was being served over an unpaid trash bill of about $150.
''I could see if I owed $1,000 or a murder or something like that.
We were unarmed guys just having a conversation.''
''You just cannot pull a weapon where there is no deadly force being directed at you,'' Judge Richard Webb scolded the constable, Charles R. Zaengle.
A little-understood profession with roots dating to feudal times, constables in Pennsylvania are elected and, at times, appointed law enforcement officials who perform official duties for the minor judiciary, individuals and corporations. They can serve warrants and subpoenas, provide courtroom security, transport prisoners, make arrests and keep the peace in domestic situations.
Constables are both blessed and cursed by their unusual standing between the law enforcement and judicial systems. They are paid through fees attached to the legal work they carry out, saving taxpayers untold sums. Constables say that since they work on demand, they are more accountable to the public than police officers and sheriffs.
But their decentralized structure also means that constables in Pennsylvania answer to no one through a chain of command. Courts have ruled that although they are elected, constables are neither court nor police employees; they are independent contractors. Constables have no mandatory uniform. They are equipped according to each individual's tastes and budget.
If they receive training and choose to carry a firearm, constables have to certify that they are not prohibited to carry a gun. Otherwise, there are no prerequisites for an individual to run for constable.
''There should be some sort of psychological testing like the police go through,'' said Greg Glass, who owned one of the dogs shot by constables in the infamous May 8 incident in Allentown. ''Why should a constable be better than other police or anybody else who deals with the public? They should get the same 'cause they're working with a badge.''
Glass is one of the home's residents planning a federal lawsuit over the shootings. The Lehigh County Humane Society also is considering charges.
''The problem from the justice system perspective is the general public does not make the distinction between police officers and constables,'' said Bradford Charles, the former Lebanon County district attorney who led a state district attorneys' study of constables in 1998.
The study also produced a resolution saying that ''antiquated'' state constable regulations were insufficient to deal with the ''numerous complaints'' about their behavior.
'Cowboy' constables discredit a field with no oversight
Violent, rarely disciplined behavior of some raises concerns about profession.
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