Days after Constable Clarke Steele accidentally shot and killed 12-year-old Ciara Meyer while serving eviction papers, an autopsy report has ruled her death a homicide. An official investigation has been launched by state police, although Meyer’s family has publicly stated that it doesn’t fault Steele for the shooting.
But even though the girl’s shooting was accidental, it raises questions about the role constables play in the state’s criminal justice system. Many other states use similar law enforcement officials who operate outside the police department — and without police training. In Pennsylvania, they’re independent, elected contractors who serve district courts. They are not sworn police officers, but they have the power to serve warrants, “conduct warrantless arrests for felonies,” and step in when a person — or property — is in danger. They’re also able to use deadly force.
And like other law enforcement agencies that operate independently of police departments around the country, they have been accused of using excessive force, theft, sexual assault, and operating without the oversight that police departments have.
In 2008, the Associated Press discovered that constables had committed a slew of felonies: child molestation, having sex with prisoners, and murder. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put in place standards of conduct for the state’s constables, in response to pressure to rein them in. President judges in district courts were tasked with creating Constable Review Boards to investigate complaints and dole out punishments.
But even with stricter policies and procedures to follow, constables keep abusing their power.
More recently, one threatened to arrest a prostitute if she didn’t sleep with him at the rate he set. Two convicted constables showed no remorse for handcuffing a woman who failed to pay a parking ticket and dragging her by her legs — in front of two children. One man was shot in the back and paralyzed when a constable tried to serve him papers for unpaid parking tickets. Three months ago, another constable was accused of strangling and beating his girlfriend.
And because they’re paid piecemeal, they have incentives to target people who have multiple warrants. The payment system also leaves room for people to falsely report the services they’ve completed. Last year, two constables charged a county controller’s office for $3,600, for serving warrants and driving expenses. The warrants weren’t served, and the men skewed the number of miles they drove.
And while they perform many of the same duties as police officers, if constables abuse their authority, they don’t have to answer to the chain of command that agents working for local, state, and federal police departments do. They also receive far less training than other law enforcement officials.
But Pennsylvania’s constables aren’t unique. Other states have seen tragic results of their own programs empowering people who aren’t sworn officers.
For instance, a black University of Virginia student was brutally beaten by an authority from Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), an agency that regulates Virginia’s alcohol industry. ABC authorities are not police officers, but they are allowed to make arrests, use force to apprehend people, and carry guns.