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A report by the State Commission of Investigation found that many constables imitate police officers despite often having no official duties. (Photo: State Commission of Investigation).

SCI report recommends statewide abolition of constable position

Report finds frequent abuse, poor oversight of antiquated role

By Joey Fox, January 07 2022 12:02 pm

The State Commission of Investigation (SCI) released a report last month advocating for the abolition of the state’s constable position, finding that the position is frequently abused and poorly supervised in municipalities across the state.

Constables, originally the precursor to the state’s professional police departments, are individuals chosen by municipalities – disproportionately Essex County municipalities – to serve myriad duties, such as enforcing noise ordinances and monitoring polls during elections. In theory, constables are in no way equivalent to police officers or other trained law enforcement officials.

In practice, however, the SCI report found that many constables present themselves as law enforcement officers to the public, interfere in ongoing police actions, carry firearms, and leverage their position to obtain jobs and higher salaries. This is despite many constables having no formal training and many municipalities performing no background checks on constable candidates.

“Certain constables have indeed portrayed themselves as bona fide law enforcement officers through their appearance and actions,” the SCI wrote. “Along with wearing regalia – often purchased by the constables themselves – that looks remarkably similar to those worn by police officers, some use walkie-talkies to communicate with fellow members or etch law enforcement mottos like ‘Protect and Serve’ on their vehicles.”

What’s more, the SCI report found that many municipalities do not keep track of their constables, failing to enforce state law requiring constables to provide monthly activity reports. 

Such inconsistent oversight, the SCI argued, leads to negative outcomes for both the public – who can be misled into thinking constables hold formal law enforcement duties – and police officers, who are forced to contend with armed individuals operating in a semi-extralegal manner.

“Constables are a throwback to the 19th century when New Jersey was a rural state and policing was less than professional,” New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Colligan said in the report. “But the idea that an ancient state law remains on the books, authorizing, in theory, thousands of untrained and unaccountable individuals to roam the streets in uniforms and vehicles that appear official is a recipe for disaster.”

The report’s appendix, however, also included a rebuttal from Philip Geron, an Essex County constable and the founder of Guaranteed Subpoena Service, who said that his position as a constable has improved his ability to command respect when serving subpoenas.

“Harm the system and you will harm the court,” Geron wrote. “Until another method is developed, this one should stay in place. No authority, no Rule of Law. If you respect the law, then respect the dirty work we do.”

Ultimately, the SCI report strongly recommended that the constable position be abolished statewide; while some municipalities have taken individual steps to eliminate the position, the SCI wrote that such steps are too piecemeal a solution. The report also recommended that any references to constables in state statutes be removed, and that municipalities utilizing constables for low-level tasks hire part-time employees instead. 

“The Commission recommends the immediate repeal of statutes authorizing municipal governing bodies to appoint and empower constables in New Jersey,” the SCI wrote. “The elimination of the position statewide is the only way to effectively stamp out the widespread abuses of power by constables revealed in this report. It is difficult to reassure the public that these abuses will not persist without sweeping action to abolish the position altogether.”

Just two days ago, the SCI made headlines for a different reason: after four years serving on the SCI under Gov. Phil Murphy, two appointees of Gov. Chris Christie – Rosemary Iannacone and Joseph Scancarella – will leave the commission at Murphy’s behest. Appointed in their place will be John Lacey and Rev. Tiffany Williams Brewer, who will be the first Black woman to chair the commission.

SCI Constables Report
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