Constables are ‘outdated relic’ and should be abolished, N.J. watchdog says

The State Commission of Investigation urged lawmakers to change state law

By: - December 8, 2021 7:00 am

Composite of uniforms worn by constables in New Jersey (Photo courtesy of the State Commission of Investigation)

A state watchdog group is calling on New Jersey lawmakers to abolish the position of constables statewide, saying county constables often misrepresent themselves as sworn law enforcement officers, engage in policing activities beyond their authority, and use their position for personal profit.

In a report released Tuesday, the State Commission of Investigation said constables are untrained and often armed, and yet have no supervision and are subject to no accountability.

The commission began investigating after Essex County authorities raised concerns about constables’ conduct.

Investigators found plenty of incidents where constables exploited their positions to act as “wannabe” cops. Several Essex County constables drove, unsolicited, to a neighboring county to provide backup to police during a 2019 mass shooting in Jersey City that left six people dead. Another pulled over a taxi driver after a traffic dispute last year in Newark — and then flashed his badge and told police who responded to the dispute that he was a police officer like them.

“Constables are outdated relics that have no place in the highly organized and sophisticated system of modern law enforcement,” the report says. “Rather than serving as a beneficial adjunct to police, the role instead far too frequently represents a potential hazard to the constables themselves, the police they claim to want to help, and the public at large.”

State laws dating to the 1600s allow municipalities to appoint constables. In some towns, constable is just a ceremonial title, while other towns direct constables to assist police by handling low-level duties like enforcing noise and litter ordinances. Typically constables are unpaid, but some get stipends from the towns that hire them.

State law requires only that candidates be a “qualified voter” and live in a municipality for three years to become a constable. State law also requires them to serve three-year terms and gives them countywide authority.

But many carry badges, use walkie-talkies, and wear uniforms that make them look like sworn police officers, creating confusion in the public about their role, the report notes. And many constables capitalize on that confusion, using their constable credentials to land jobs at private security firms or negotiate higher wages, the report alleges.

And while state law requires constables to submit monthly activity reports to the governing body that appointed them, many don’t — with no consequence, the report says.

Because there’s no oversight, it’s unclear how many constables there are in New Jersey. The commission surveyed half of the state’s municipalities and found 136 constables in Atlantic, Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, Passaic, Sussex, and Union counties. The report says a statewide constables’ organization in 2018 reported New Jersey had about 350 constables.

Several groups backed up the commission’s call for lawmakers to get rid of constables, including the County Prosecutors Association of New Jersey, the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police, and the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association.

Philip Fluker, who heads the New Jersey State Fraternal Order of Constables, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

But Andre Morton, president of the County Constables Association of New Jersey, said he felt blindsided by the report, because his association has been working with legislators to require training for constables statewide.

Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Hudson) introduced a bill in January 2020 that would require constables to complete a training course approved by the Police Training Commission. The bill would also authorize the Police Training Commission to prescribe curriculum standards for training and certify those who complete it.

It was referred to the Assembly’s Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee but hasn’t moved.

Tucker and Chiaravalloti introduced an identical bill in January 2018, and lawmakers in the Homeland Security Committee advanced it. But the bill stalled in the Appropriations Committee and never made it to the full Assembly for a vote in that session.

“I’m just very disappointed in the state of New Jersey and the State Commission of Investigation, because we came to the state to modernize constables and to get us academy-trained, which this bill would do,” Morton said. “I ask the state Senate and the General Assembly to take a hard look at the bill that we’ve been trying to pass before they talk about getting rid of constables altogether.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.