Constables are a relic of colonial times and Pennsylvania has been on a slow, hard road seeking to turn what were once unskilled quasi-cops into law enforcement professionals. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the latest to try.
A quarter-century ago the Post-Gazette documented the follies that flowed from having undisciplined, amateurish officer wannabes. To be sure, the situation has improved. Today constables, who serve arrest warrants and subpoenas and transport prisoners, are better trained and must be certified by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
But problems haven't gone away. In a nod to that reality, the Supreme Court requested the formation of a work group, which first met in late 2010. The group included judges in Common Pleas courts and magisterial districts, court administrators and two constables.
The group's recommendations, which the Supreme Court has adopted, are helpful, as far as they go. They set out uniform standards and procedures for the work constables do for the court system while not changing their legal status. They allow president judges in counties to set up a Constable Review Board to help resolve disputes concerning a constable's performance. They mandate certain standards of conduct and deal with how constables provide security and transport prisoners.
The work group also identified areas where the law might be profitably changed -- and Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille outlined these in a letter to the leaders of the House Judiciary Committee. Some of the recommendations are startling and underscore the bigger problem. For example, members of the work group found it "troubling" that a constable could be assigned judicial duties even though he had a prior misdemeanor conviction for offenses such as simple assault, terroristic threats, indecent assault or luring a child into a vehicle.
Clearly, the Legislature has work to do, too, but even if it does fix things at the margins -- as the Supreme Court has done -- that won't change the basic problem. No matter how many policies and standards are introduced, constables are basically unaccountable. After all, they are independent contractors for the courts. They don't even wear a common uniform (one of the recommendations). It is like having a police force without a police chief.
As we have said over the years, this hoary relic of a constable system needs to be junked and replaced with one where real law enforcement officers do the job.