Jefferson County has more than 1,600 fully trained, certified law-enforcement officers — roughly four per square mile of real estate.
So, why would the county also have three untrained or undertrained, non-certified constables who can carry a gun, issue citations and make traffic stops and arrests?
It’s because the Kentucky constitution and state law say so.
While they are little known to the public at large, some constables threaten to do more harm than good every time they act as pseudo police, according to a joint investigation from WFPL’s Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and WAVE-3 News. (Read “Kentucky Constables: Untrained And Unaccountable”)
Constables across the state have a troubled history, and many continue to make headlines for sordid misdeeds and occasional felonies. In light our statewide investigation, we decided to dig into Jefferson County and learn what these three elected officials are up to.
By law, each of Jefferson County’s three constables — with precisely the same authority as real police — can draw a $9,600 per year salary from the county. But none of them have filed the required monthly reports outlining what they have done, including details of each warrant served and any money collected, according to the county clerk’s office.
One constable, under questioning from a reporter, acknowledged he does virtually nothing in his elected role.
Constable George Edward Wilson (Third District)
In his 2014 campaign, Wilson cited his experience as a deputy sheriff a decade earlier. He neglected to mention that his tenure in the sheriff’s office was not only brief, but checkered. He was fired in January 2005, before completing his probationary period.
Prior to his termination, a performance review listed six incidents involving Wilson in just one month, including leaving a juvenile in a holding cell after court had been called off; losing his key ring; leaving his weapon at home; and leaving his radio in his car.
Wilson, 65, lasted longer as a bus driver for the Transit Authority of River City. But that job didn’t go so well either. He was allowed to retire on June 1 “in lieu of termination,” according to records obtained from TARC.
Wilson had been suspended for 10 days in June 2015 for reckless driving, records show, and he was suspended again last November, for three days, for using his cell phone while behind the wheel of a moving bus.
All told during the previous decade, he was at fault in four bus-related accidents and involved in a total of 14 incidents in which he either struck another vehicle or a fixed object, according to TARC records.
Still, Wilson enjoys a constable’s full police powers, including the authority to arrest errant drivers. But court records show that in addition to his spotty driving record at TARC, Wilson has done some lawbreaking of his own while operating his personal vehicle.
Among the eight traffic citations he has accumulated in the past eight years , two were for speeding. Three others were for running a red light or a stop sign, including once while he was talking on his phone. He also was involved in two non-injury accidents.
Wilson lives in western Louisville. His district encompasses most of west and southwest Jefferson County.
Unlike many constables around the state, Wilson has some formal law-enforcement training, but none since 2004.
He acknowledged carrying a loaded gun while driving for TARC. Asked about his recent weapons training, Wilson replied: “I’ve been to the firing range a couple of times.” As to whether his lack of training should concern the public, Wilson said, “You don’t forget everything.”
Wilson said he has not made any arrests as a constable. “I’m not pulling people over and giving them tickets, because that’s not my specific duty,” he said. “But if a hazardous situation presented itself… just like when I was hired by the sheriff.”
In fact, Wilson acknowledged that he hasn’t done much of anything as constable, even serving court-related papers, a constable’s most common job. His total productivity since January 2015? Two court papers served.
Wilson explained his failure to file the required monthly reports by saying he hasn’t received any money from the county and has done minimal work so far as constable.
Michael Thompson (Second District)
Thompson, Jefferson County’s Second District constable since 2010, lives near Churchill Downs. When first contacted by a reporter in early May, the 50-year-old Thompson said he was receiving medical treatment and couldn’t talk. He agreed to call back the following day, but failed to do so. He didn’t respond to additional requests.
When a reporter went to Thompson’s home last week, he said again that he didn’t have time to talk because he was about to leave for more medical treatment. Asked if he would discuss his job once he returned home, Thompson was noncommittal. He did not call, and subsequent efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
John D. Zehnder (First District)
Zehnder, an accomplished musician and a former Jefferson County reserve deputy sheriff, lives in eastern Louisville and has been the county’s First District constable since 2010.
He attended numerous state training courses between 1999 and 2004, state records show. He also was suspended from the sheriff’s office for 90 days in 1996 in connection with an incident that is not specified in agency records. He was reinstated in May 1996 and placed on probation for a year after being demoted in rank from lieutenant to deputy, according to sheriff’s office records.
Zehnder did not respond to repeated messages left at the telephone number associated with his 2014 re-election. A recording at that number says it is for Louisville Model Shots, a photography and videography studio, and for Johnny Law Supply, which sells police equipment.
Both businesses are about four blocks from Zehnder’s home address on Lyndon Lane. No one answered the door when a reporter visited his home last week.
Failure To File Required Reports
The last Jefferson County constable to file the required monthly report with the county clerk’s office was David Whitlock in 2012, an office spokesman said.
Whitlock, perhaps, is Kentucky’s best-known constable in modern times, but for the wrong reason. He shot suspected Tammy Ortiz, a suspected shoplifter, in a Walmart parking lot in Louisville in November 2011. Whitlock was forced to resign after the shooting.
Since then, Jefferson County’s constables have been largely invisible.
Reporter R.G. Dunlop can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6533.