Lawmakers eye eliminating county constables in N.J.

State watchdog condemned constables as untrained, armed cop wannabes

By: - May 19, 2022 11:59 am

The State Commission of Investigation issued a report in December that says county constables often misrepresent themselves as sworn law enforcement officers. (Photo courtesy of the State Commission of Investigation)

Lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that would abolish county constables, five months after a state watchdog condemned constables as untrained, unsupervised — yet often armed — cop wannabes who are subject to no accountability.

Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Bergen) introduced the bill in March to implement the State Commission of Investigation’s recommendation to eliminate the “outdated” position of constables statewide “before someone gets seriously injured or worse.”

The commission issued a report in December that says county constables often misrepresent themselves as sworn law enforcement officers, engage in policing activities beyond their authority, and use their position for personal profit.

The Senate Law and Public Safety Committee unanimously advanced the bill after hearing testimony from several advocates supporting the elimination of constables.

Chadd Lackey, who heads the commission, said his group began investigating constables after law enforcement agencies raised concerns about them.

Constables originated in post-colonial times, and the position persists in just a few New Jersey counties as a largely ceremonial post in some communities but as a supplementary role in others, where constables may be tasked with crowd control and such duties, Lackey said.

“Constables are untrained, private citizens with vaguely defined duties, who both look like, and in some cases act like, sworn law enforcement. Our law enforcement partners were really concerned about these untrained private citizens, who are unsupervised volunteers appointed by local government,” Lackey said. “While they’re not legally authorized to do so, some constables carry weapons often obtained through their jobs as private security guards.”

Rob Nixon, testifying on behalf of the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, said constables pretend to be police officers.

“Not only is that a risk to the public, but it’s a risk to the law enforcement officers that I represent,” Nixon said. “This is an ancient position that should have been abolished years ago.”

Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), who chairs the committee, agreed constables are an antiquated position.

“The last time I actually heard the term used was in ‘Robin Hood,’” she said, prompting laughter.

Sen. Jean Stanfield (R-Burlington), a committee member, was Burlington County’s longtime sheriff.

“When I read your report, I was shocked to see what a dangerous situation that creates,” she said.

The Assembly has not yet acted on its version of the bill.

The Senate law and public safety committee unanimously advanced several other bills Thursday, including measures that would:

  • Expand a pilot program intended to shift the focus of juvenile justice from punishment to rehabilitation. The pilot launched last summer in Newark, Camden, Paterson, and Trenton, the four cities that incarcerate the most youth in New Jersey. This bill expands the program to Jersey City and allocates $2 million for it.
  • Require cultural diversity and implicit bias training to be part of police basic training. Lawmakers in 2020 mandated such training every five years for existing police officers. This bill would make it a core curriculum requirement during basic training for new officers.
  • Require certain public venues and places of worship to submit emergency plans to law enforcement agencies to prepare for active shooter incidents and mass casualty events.
  • Appropriate $1.25 million to recruit police candidates of color

The committee postponed voting on another bill that would allow authorities to jail more gun offenders before trial, an effort intended to reduce rising gun crimes. Reformers have opposed the measure, saying it will unjustly increase incarceration rates.


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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.